A boy turns to take a path in a maze.

Choose Carefully

All of us make choices all the time, and we may think we’re making those choices freely. But psychologist Eric Johnson says there’s an architecture behind the way choices are presented to us, and this invisible architecture can influence decisions both large and small. 

Additional Resources 


The Elements of Choice: Why the Way We Decide Matters, by Eric Johnson, Riverhead Books, 2021.

The Adaptive Decision Maker, by John Payne, James Bettman and Eric Johnson, Cambridge University Press, 1993.

Decision Research: A Field Guide, by John Carroll and Eric Johnson, Sage Publications, 1990.


Local Warming is Real: A Meta-Analysis of the Effect of Recent Temperature on Climate Change Beliefs, by Eli R. Sugerman, Ye Li, Eric Johnson, Current Opinion in Behavioral Science, 2021.

Can Green Defaults Reduce Meat Consumption?, by Johanna Meier, et. al, SSRN, 2021.

Effect of Default Options in Advance Directives on Hospital-Free Days and Care Choices Among Seriously Ill Patients: A Randomized Clinical Trial, by Scott Halpern, et. al, JAMA Network Open, 2020.

The Power of Rankings: Quantifying the Effect of Rankings on Online Consumer Search and Purchase Decisions, by Raluca M. Ursu, Marketing Science, 2018.

Choose to Lose: Health Plan Choices From a Menu with Dominated Option, by Saurabh Bhargava, et. al, Quarterly Journal of Economics, 2017.

Default Options in Advance Directives Influence How Patients Set Goals For End-Of-Life Care, by Scott D. Halpern, et. al, Health Affairs, 2013.

Clouds Make Nerds Look Good: Field Evidence of the Impact of Incidental Factors on Decision Making, by Uri Simonsohn, Journal of Behavioral Decision Making, 2007.

How Consumers Are Affected by the Framing of Attribute Information Before and After Consuming the Product, by Irwin P. Levin and Gary J. Gaeth, Journal of Consumer Research, 1988.


Winston Churchill’s speech on the House of Commons rebuilding on October 28, 1943.

Mentalist Derren Brown’s subliminal advertising trick from 2007.

The transcript below may be for an earlier version of this episode. Our transcripts are provided by various partners and may contain errors or deviate slightly from the audio.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. It was November, 2004. Jeopardy Champion, Ken Jennings kept winning and winning and winning.

Alex Trebek: He now has $1,004,960.

Shankar Vedantam: His streak seemed unbreakable.

Alex Trebek: And now, a total of $2,006,300.

Shankar Vedantam: With Christmas approaching on his 75th appearance on the show, the champion seemed likely to win yet again. It was Final Jeopardy, the last challenge of the episode. If Ken got this one answer right, the streak would continue. Host Alex Trebek presented the question.

Alex Trebek: The category is business and industry and here is the clue, ladies and gentlemen. Most of this firm's 70,000 seasonal white color employees work only four months a year. 30 seconds, good luck.

Shankar Vedantam: Columbia University psychologist, Eric Johnson describes what happened next.

Eric Johnson: So, Jennings thought and thought it must be seasonal, it must be something about Christmas. So, he was thinking maybe it's like someone who does delivery like FedEx or maybe it's people who put up sidewalk centers like Salvation Army.

Shankar Vedantam: The other contestant with a chance to win, Nancy Zerg, went in a different direction. She picked the tax preparation company, H&R Block, which hires a lot of accountants each year come tax season.

Alex Trebek: Nancy, you wrote down your response rather quickly, I thought. I hope it's correct. Let's take a look.

Nancy Zerg: I hope so too.

Alex Trebek: What is H&R Block? You're right, your wager, 4401 taking you up to 14,401, you have a $1 lead over Ken Jennings right now. And his final response was FedEx. His wager was 5601. He winds up in second place with 8790 and Nancy Zerg, congratulations. You are indeed a giant killer, our new Jeopardy Champion, 14,401. Ken, take a look at the audience.

Shankar Vedantam: Ken Jennings knew that H&R Block hired lots of white collar workers during tax preparation season. It's just that once his mind gravitated to companies that were especially active around Christmas, he couldn't pull himself out of that mental groove.

Eric Johnson: And he claims later on, there was absolutely no way that came to his mind, he was just blocked by his initial thoughts. This is something psychologists call inhibition, that when you think about one thing you can't think about the other.

Shankar Vedantam: This week on Hidden Brain, how our minds can be influenced by the way options are presented to us and how we can make choices more wisely.

Shankar Vedantam: As we move through life, we are constantly making choices. When we buy a car, choose a college or pick a romantic partner. We think about the ramifications of different options. One thing we usually don't consider: how the way in which choices are presented to us, shapes what we decide to do. At Columbia University, Eric Johnson studies how the presentation of choices can influence people and how these insights can be used for both good and evil. Eric Johnson, welcome to Hidden Brain.

Eric Johnson: Very glad to be with you, Shankar.

Shankar Vedantam: Some years ago, Eric, a graduate student came to you and said she could change the sofas that customers would buy by changing the background on a website selling the sofas. You were skeptical that this was the case so she ran a lab experiment to convince you, can you tell me what she did and what happened?

Eric Johnson: What she suggested is that the background, what's called the wallpaper website, might influence people's choice. So, she went out and designed several different website backgrounds. One for example, would be clouds embedded on a blue sky and she showed that when you asked people what they thought of when they saw that, they would say comfort. Another one might be dollar bills embedded on a green page. And she asked people what they thought of, not surprising they would say cost. She then gave people a task where they had to choose a couch. One couch was expensive and comfortable, the other couch was actually cheap and uncomfortable. And what she found is that people actually chose a couch that was more compatible with a background, that is with the blue clouds. They would choose the comfortable but more expensive couch. With the green money, they chose a cheap uncomfortable couch.

Shankar Vedantam: This reminds me of a similar situation, this one drawn from real life. The research at Kareem Haggag looked at students at the US Military Academy at West Point, they were taking introductory classes in economics, calculus, chemistry and other subjects. The students were assigned to these classes at various times of the day. Some took the class first thing in the morning, others took the same class later in the day. Kareem Haggag looked at how likely students were to later choose that subject as their college major. Here's what he found.

Kareem Haggag: Students who are randomly assigned to the first period, 7:30 AM section are about 10% less likely to choose the corresponding major compared to a student who takes that class later in the day. We also compared two students who are sitting in the exact same classroom, but one of whom just had a free period as a break before and the other came from one or more back to back classes. We find that each additional back to back class reduces the likelihood that that student enrolls in the major by about 12%.

Shankar Vedantam: It's not quite fluffy clouds and sofas, but it's the same general principle. Something that should not influence a consequential decision like which major you select in college seems to be influenced by when the class was scheduled or if you took that class right after a challenging class.

Eric Johnson: What's interesting about that example is that the decision is actually quite a while after you've taken the class, you're not sitting there at 9:00 AM in the calculus class making a decision. Someday later you're given a form, what do you want as a major? And the memory of how awful you felt during that calculus class or during that economics class actually is what's influencing your choice. So, it's not only that immediate environment like the webpages but it's also the memories of that environment that make a difference.

Shankar Vedantam: So, one last idea along the same lines, you've asked volunteers how much they care about global climate change and global warming and what they would be willing to do to fix it. But you've also measured something curious, you've measured what the ambient temperature is as they're answering the question. Describe to me the setup of the study and what you found, Eric.

Eric Johnson: So, I had people come to our website and one of the things we asked them about was what's their zip code? And my co-authors cleverly figured out, they could actually figure out what the temperature that day was as they were answering the questionnaire. And so, much like the website color might change choice, we're wondering whether the ambient temperature would change how concerned they were with global warming and in some studies actually how much they would donate for a global warming charity. And surprisingly, we found that on days that were warmer than average, people would give more money and be more concerned about global warming. Days that were colder than average, they were much less concerned about global warming and they gave less money.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that experiments have been run along the same lines where you can actually manipulate the temperature, fiddle with the thermostat and you get similar results?

Eric Johnson: Yeah, the research we've done that actually come up with very similar results that warmer temperatures increase concern with global warming. We've actually done something recently called a meta-analysis when we look at all the studies that have looked at this, and there's a significant and reasonable effect of ambient temperature, no matter how you manipulate it on people's concern for climate change.

Shankar Vedantam: So, what's interesting here, Eric is that if you ask the people buying the sofas or you ask the college students deciding on their major or the volunteers in a hot room, why they make the decisions they did, how many of them do you think would point to those hidden factors as the reason for their decision?

Eric Johnson: I can tell you in our studies when we ask people, "Were you influenced by how warm it was today?" Nobody says yes. It's something that is actually like a fish in water, it's something we don't see and we're not aware of those external influences.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we've looked at how people can be blind to why they are making a certain choice, but the same blindness often affects people who are offering choices. Sometime ago, the states of New Jersey and Pennsylvania moved to introduce cheaper options for car insurance for consumers, but New Jersey inadvertently made it easier for customers to select the cheaper plan, Pennsylvania made it harder. We'll talk later on about what the states specifically did, but for now, can you tell me what difference did it actually make to consumers? You might say that car insurance costs a lot of money, people would take the time and trouble to figure out the best deal. You've studied what happened, did customers behave differently in New Jersey relative to Pennsylvania?

Eric Johnson: It's actually interesting because living there and getting the forms themselves, I saw it real-time. In New Jersey, the cheaper policy was much more popular, about three times as popular as in Pennsylvania, where the expensive policy was very popular. There was a very big difference in the kind of insurance people bought in the two states.

Shankar Vedantam: So, you and your colleague, Dan Goldstein calculated the ultimate difference between the two states and you found that customers in Pennsylvania spent two billion additional dollars, that's billion with a B on car insurance. I mean, that's just gigantic.

Eric Johnson: And it's probably more now because we calculated that in 2003 the differences still exist.

Shankar Vedantam: I understand that you even wrote to the governors of the two states and published an op-ed about your thoughts in a Pennsylvania newspaper but people blew you off. Again, the idea that the way choices are presented to people could make a difference in how people made decisions, that idea seemed ridiculous to people.

Eric Johnson: We didn't even hear anything from the governors. Although actually, eventually we did get a letter from Christine Whitman, who was the Governor of New Jersey saying she'll give it to somebody. But it didn't have any immediate impact.

Shankar Vedantam: So, in recent years there's been increasing interest in how we respond to choices and how best to present choices to others. Researchers call this field of study choice architecture, can you tell me about the origins of that term?

Eric Johnson: The term comes from actually Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the book Nudge. And what it means is that somebody is making a set of decisions about how to present the choice to you. They are what I'll call tools for choice architecture. Deciding how many options to present to you, deciding the order of the options, deciding how to describe the options. But the key to choice architecture is a little realization and that realization is, "Oh maybe we can pick the way to present a choice that helps people make the best decision."

Shankar Vedantam: In some ways, if you think about what an architect does when she's designing an actual building, the architect's making choices. How big do you want the entryway to be? Do you want a big grand entrance? Do you want a humble entrance? Do you want open spaces? Do you want closed spaces? And presumably, each of those choices changes the way people will behave inside that building. And I think the insight here is that by modifying the choices or the way choices are presented to people, in some ways you're inviting them into your building to walk in a certain way, to behave in a certain way.

Eric Johnson: It's absolutely true. We have a brand new business school building and when we talked to the architects, they said the stairs are actually right up front and the elevator's way in the back so people will actually take the stairs rather than the elevator. The other thing that's really important is that notice there has to be a decision about where the stairs are and where the elevator is. There's no choice architecture option. You have to decide where those go. And so, it's not as if somebody's not a choice architect, you can be a choice architect knowingly, mindfully or you can be a choice architect without really realizing what you're doing.

Shankar Vedantam: You cite a very interesting historical example from the actual world of architecture to illustrate how choice architecture works.

Winston Churchill: On the night of the 10th of May 1941, our House of Commons was destroyed and we have now to consider whether we should build it up again and how.

Shankar Vedantam: In 1943, there were plans to reconstruct the British House of Commons, which had been destroyed during the German Blitz in World War II. This led to an interesting debate about how the building should be reconstructed. Tell me what happened, Eric.

Eric Johnson: Yes. It turns out that Winston Churchill really had been in, at that point, in Parliament for three decades and he made a very impassioned speech saying he wanted the building rebuilt the same way. The quote that really attracted me to the story is he said-

Winston Churchill: We shape our buildings and afterwards our buildings shape us.

Eric Johnson: What he pointed out is that basically unlike the way, for example, the US Congress is organized, it's also been the case that Parliament had two sides facing each other. In fact historically, there were exactly two sword links apart, which is important because they were actually using that space as early as the 16th century. And his point is that because you paid attention to the other party, you would pay less attention to what was going on in your own party. You presented more of a united front and that actually made for a much livelier debate. And that was very important he felt for the two party system in Britain. The other thing he did was make sure the building was too small for everyone so it seemed like it was more intense and more exciting.

Winston Churchill: We attach immense importance to the survival of parliamentary democracy. We wish to see our parliament as a strong, easy, flexible instrument of free debate. For this purpose, a small chamber and a sense of intimacy are indispensable.

Shankar Vedantam: Well, one of the more consequential examples of inadvertent choice architecture happened in the year 2000 Republican presidential candidate George W. Bush's name was listed first on the ballot in Florida ahead of the Democrat Al Gore. Now, it wasn't because Bush came before Gore alphabetically. Since the 1950s, the law in Florida was that the candidate belonging to the Governor's party would be listed first on the ballot. Eric, what do we know about the effect of ballot order on voting, especially in close elections.

Eric Johnson: As you may recall, George Bush's brother, Jed Bush was the governor and as you might remember, that was a very close election. About 500 votes separated the two. People spent a lot of time looking at ballots, trying to recount them. There was a famous debate about hanging chads. Now, it turns out that some states actually randomized the order, that is you go from county to county or precinct to precinct and the order just differs. So, in half of them Gore would be first, in the other half Bush would be first. That allows us to estimate how big the effect is. And that effect is much larger than 500 votes. It probably is tens of thousands of votes. In fact, Jon Krosnick, who's a psychologist at Stanford has argued that had it been randomized in Florida, Al Gore would've been president.

Shankar Vedantam: In nearly every domain of our lives, smart marketers and canny politicians are already using ideas from choice architecture to change what you buy, to manipulate you with a ballot box and to influence how you think. When we come back, the psychological mechanisms behind choice architecture and how we can use these insights to help people lead better lives. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. In his book, The Elements of Choice, the psychologist Eric Johnson explores the world of choice architecture. He studies why we fail to see that our decisions can be subtly biased by the way choices are presented to us. He also examines how we routinely present choices to others in ways that turn out to be counterproductive. Some years ago Eric, researchers presented visitors who wanted to sign up for a new social media platform with an online agreement. It was very long and buried deep inside the terms of service agreement was a very unusual clause. Here's how the researcher, Jonathan Obar described the clause to me.

Jonathan Obar: What we did is we went to the extreme and we included this, a firstborn clause, suggesting that if you agreed to these policies that as a form of payment, you'd be giving up a firstborn child. And 98% of the participants that took the study didn't even notice this particular clause.

Shankar Vedantam: So, nearly every single person agreed to hand over their firstborn child in exchange for access to the new social media platform. Now obviously, the researchers were not looking to steal people's kids but it's an astonishing example of how people can be led to make bad decisions. Eric, I want to look at the different mechanisms that play in choice architecture. And I want to start with the idea that when the right choice involves waiting through a lot of difficult material, people often make the wrong choice?

Eric Johnson: I think that's true. In fact, a really important observation is that people make decisions early on when they're making a choice about how to make that choice. They actually are doing what I think of as choosing a plausible path on how to make the decision. When we do that, we often are very, very sensitive to how much effort is involved, particularly at the beginning. So you go, you want to join this brand new media service, you're excited and it says, "First read all this," and that can be 10,000 words, "And then click here." It's not a surprise that most people don't do that long bit of reading and just click there.

Shankar Vedantam: Something very similar happened with the rollout of the Affordable Care Act in 2013. Here, the stakes were really significant and they were real. Can you describe to me what happened when the website went public, Eric?

Eric Johnson: One of the things that was interesting is that there were a lot of decisions that a choice architect would have to make in designing the site. So for example, there were sites that had only eight options, other states had sites which had 160 options. The thing that's interesting is that it's a hard, hard, hard decision because you have three things you need to think about if you're interested in cost. The deductible, which is how much you pay every time you use the doctor, there is a co-payment and then there's a premium. And people can't do the math of adding those three up. So, we did a set of studies where we actually had people and say, "Find the cheapest insurance," and almost everybody couldn't. They just can't do the math. And as a result, they were making choices that actually cost on average hundreds of dollars more than they should.

Shankar Vedantam: And of course, when you multiply this out over millions of people across an entire nation, the costs actually become quite astronomical.

Eric Johnson: Yeah, our estimate was $9 billion of excess premiums being paid.

Shankar Vedantam: So, you talked a second ago about how people have a strong impulse to follow the path of least resistance. Another place where this affects us is when we go shopping. Can you paint me a picture of the lengths that companies go to, to seek the right placement for their products in bookstores and on grocery shelves?

Eric Johnson: Not everybody knows this, there's actually payments that companies will give to supermarkets to put products in favored positions. For example, it turns out just below eye level, you're much more likely to sell than if you're, say for example, at knee level. And the mechanism seems to be people are very sensitive to the little bit of effort it might take to kneel down. Imagine you have a child in your cart and you're rolling around, you want to get done. The last thing you want to do is read labels at levels that are very low. You grab and go.

Shankar Vedantam: And this is true across all forms of commerce, so companies like Google, for example, pay other companies like Apple to come pre-installed on iPhones and iPads. Now, anyone can navigate over to Google but having it pre-installed makes the choice a tiny bit easier and this turns out to make a big difference?

Eric Johnson: It turns out that in fact, very, very few people actually make the shift from Google, let's say to Microsoft Bing or any other website. And in fact, they stick with that. So, that stickiness is because we don't want to spend the time to actually do the three or four clicks or touches that would take us to change what the default search option is.

Shankar Vedantam: I'm reminded of a study by Raluca Ursu at New York University. She looked at how people picked hotel accommodations on Expedia. You've cited this in your book, do you remember what you found?

Eric Johnson: It was actually quite striking because it's one of the cases where we know the data that would've normally been known only to the company. And I should point out that Expedia makes most of its money from hotel rooms. We think about it as flights and rental cars but a big part of their revenue is hotel rooms. And so, they typically present, say, 30 hotel rooms to somebody and there you can do it in lots of orders. So, the question that Raluca was looking at is, how important it is to be in first, second, third, et cetera? And what she found was basically the first one actually got a share that was 50% more than if it was second.

Shankar Vedantam: Wow. We talked earlier about the car insurance options offered by New Jersey and Pennsylvania. I want to go back to that example in a little more detail to see why so many customers picked the cheaper insurance in New Jersey but failed to do so in Pennsylvania. Can you explain to me what they saw, what was different about that choices that prompted them to make the right decision in one state and the wrong session in another?

Eric Johnson: Well, I think one of the big things is ease. I mean, it turns out that the forms, I saw them because I was there, were in tiny print on onion skin paper, and I would have to, in theory, read that to understand what's going on. Check a box and send it back in. Again the effort, particularly the prediction of effort was large. The question is, what happened if you didn't make a choice? In New Jersey, if I didn't make a choice, I got a policy that was cheaper and didn't have quite as much coverage. In Pennsylvania, I got the more expensive coverage that was more complete. So, we call that a default, it happens if you have no action. And those defaults made all the difference in the world and those choices.

Shankar Vedantam: When you talk about this idea of the default, it basically suggests that what happens to the person in the absence of their making a choice turns out to be really consequential.

Eric Johnson: That's right. And it's easy to think about three reasons why that might be the case. One is, as we've been talking about, it's easier to take the default. I don't have to fill out a form, I don't have to find a stamp to send in the form, it's easier. But that's not all that's going on. It turns out defaults work best when that is accompanied by people thinking that the person posing the choice, the designer thinks that's the best option. So, maybe I think New Jersey thinks this is the best option. That is what we call endorsement. And finally, there's a third source and whether things that really makes defaults work, is what we call endowment, which is basically thinking that I have this insurance policy, I can think of what's good about it. Therefore, I'm more likely to choose it.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the more unusual ways in which choice architecture works is by taking advantage of how memory works. There's an entertainer named Derren Brown, who's known in the UK as a mentalist. He doesn't necessarily claim to have psychic powers but he does have an uncanny ability to seemingly read people's minds.

Derren Brown: Thank you for joining us, gentlemen. Tony, yes?

Tony: Yes, it's fine.

Derren Brown: And Martin?

Martin: Yeah.

Derren Brown: Hi, I'm Derren. Let me get down to explaining.

Shankar Vedantam: In one trick, he brings two advertising executives into an office and gives them instructions on coming up with a slogan for a taxidermy shop. Can you describe the setup of what he does and what happens next, Eric?

Eric Johnson: Yeah. These two executives, Tony and Martin, actually were taken to an office in a cab. They're then brought up to the office and Derren asked them to create an ad campaign for an unusual business. It's actually an animal taxidermy business.

Derren Brown: Now, the idea is you've only got half an hour to do this so you got to really work with your first instinct. So at the moment, you've got no idea what you're going to do, correct?

Tony: No.

Eric Johnson: He shows them a piece of taxidermy and a cat that's been stuffed. And then, he puts a piece of paper that has his ideas in an envelope and then puts underneath one of the stuffed cats and leaves a room, comes back in half hour and they have drawn on a whiteboard what they think a good ad would be, including a logo and a slogan. And they have a nice thing, which is a bear playing a harp in front of the pearly gates and they've named the business Animal Heaven and had the slogan, "The best place for dead animals." Now, Brown, being a very theatrical musician, says, "Very interesting."

Derren Brown: I do want to show you my own ideas from beforehand.

Tony: Okay.

Shankar Vedantam: The mentalist pulls out the envelope that has been sitting in the room the whole time.

Eric Johnson: The logo was almost identical.

Derren Brown: It's a harp-playing bear.

Eric Johnson: The gasp when he pulls it out.

Martin: Oh God.

Eric Johnson: It's called Creature Heaven, there's a harp, a bear and clouds and gates and the logo actually looks just like his, the slogan differed only in two words. So, they are actually quite impressed.

Martin: Well, this is scary, really.

Eric Johnson: Gobsmacked, I think is the British term one of them uses. And you have to ask how they do this. Remember there was a cab ride and Brown and his staff had basically rigged that cab ride. For example, the cab came to the London Zoo. There's a huge set of iron gates and they stopped there. And as they were stopping for a bunch of kids crossing the road, the kids were all dressed in t-shirts that had a picture of the zoo. Finally, on the way in, they passed lots of images of harps happened to be in storefronts. So, what Brown was doing is actually making these ideas more accessible to ad execs. In fact, I argue he wasn't really a mind reader, he was much more a mind writer imposing these ideas in their heads.

Derren Brown: It's comforting to know that you're just as susceptible to subliminal persuasion as the rest of us. Thank you very much for helping us out. Tony, Martin.

Tony: Thank you. Pleasure.

Derren Brown: Take care. Thank you very much indeed.

Martin: Thanks, bye bye.

Shankar Vedantam: One curious aspect of choice architecture has to do with the order in which choices are presented to us. The National Bureau of Economic Research has an email newsletter where they round up interesting studies in the field of economics. And these studies are listed in no particular order. And yet, researchers found that some studies get clicked on and downloaded far more often than others. What was going on, Eric?

Eric Johnson: I think it's actually quite an interesting example because the economists think that they are rational and yet they found that the first option was actually much more likely to be downloaded. Researchers looked at actually, if those papers were cited by other papers later on and found that order effect still lasted. So, citations actually are what academics love, that's what gets them reputations, that's what can get them tenure. And it turns out even citations were affected by this random ordering of which paper was first.

Shankar Vedantam: If being first on a list can inadvertently communicate that you are special, sometimes being last confers an advantage too. In competitions where judges are evaluating a series of performances, the final performers have a big advantage. Researchers call these twin patterns, the primacy effect and the recency effect.

Eric Johnson: When you have control of the list, you're going to get primacy being first is best. But when the choice architect has control over the list, you may well get recency. Think about the following example. You're in a restaurant, it's probably the case if you get a paper menu, the first option will have an advantage. But imagine you're in a fancy restaurant where they give you a verbal menu, they read things. You are likely to forget what the first option is and only remember the last one and that turns out to be an advantage.

Shankar Vedantam: When we come back, how to apply these insights to improve our lives and the ethical questions that arise when you use psychology to manipulate people. You're listening to Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam.

Shankar Vedantam: (silence).

Shankar Vedantam: This is Hidden Brain, I'm Shankar Vedantam. Many of us go through life making choices or offering choices to others without realizing that the manner in which choices are presented regularly shapes how people think. Columbia University psychologist, Eric Johnson, is an expert on the subject of what is called choice architecture. Eric, I want to look at some ways your insights might change the way we parent our kids, manage our employees and serve our communities. One idea we explored was the power of the path of least resistance, when our streaming television channel automatically plays the next episode of the series we are watching, we are much more likely to binge episodes than if we had to do something as small as pick up the remote and hit play. But some of this laziness can also be deployed for good. Doctors often prescribe brand name drugs, even though cheaper generics are available and this turns out to be costly for consumers, costly for the system and makes it more likely patients will not take the medications they need. You cite an interesting story about how researchers at Cornell University were able to get doctors to prescribe generic drugs instead of brand name drugs by employing an insight from choice architecture. Can you tell me what they did, Eric?

Eric Johnson: Sure. A former student of mine, it's actually quite gratifying to see this work applied. She actually had the insight that many of the things that had been tried failed because they were the wrong diagnosis. It turns out that doctors, when they have a choice, have a name of a brand name drug, let's say antihistamine, it's called Allegra. It turns out there's a generic drug called fexofenadine hydrochloride. And that drug actually costs 20 cents if an Allegra costs a dollar. But of course, that's very hard to remember, very hard to type. And all she actually did was a very simple thing.

Eric Johnson: When I started typing Allegra, A-L-L, it put in fexofenadine hydrochloride. And I could change it if I were a doctor, there's a little button I click that says, "Prescribe the brand name drug." But almost nobody did. It turns out the increase was from 40% to over 90% in supplying the generic drugs, simply by changing the interface. They had tried previously to pay doctors to do generic drugs. They actually had tried to browbeat them by putting up alerts and all that did was get people annoyed. So, this small change in the interface actually changed behavior radically.

Shankar Vedantam: So, doctors like the rest of us follow the path of least resistance and a related idea that we explored when we talked about how people don't read complex legal documents when they sign up for online services, is a value of keeping things simple. You sign in the book, the famous story of Captain Chesley Sullenberger seconds after he piloted a US Airways plane after it took off from LaGuardia airport. A flock of geese hit the plane and both engines went down. And Captain Sully as he's known, had to decide how and where to land the plane in just over three minutes. How did principles from choice architecture help Captain Sully safely land the plane in the Hudson River, Eric?

Eric Johnson: That particular plane is interesting because it had what's called a glass cockpit. It actually runs on electronics and if they lose power, they actually lose a set of gauges in front of them. So, what Sully did was very early on, within seconds of the collision, he reached up and turned on an auxiliary generator that kept the gauges running. This was important. There was one particular gauge that was very useful to him. It's called the green dot gauge or the airspeed tape. And what that does is essentially say, "What is the angle in which you have to fly to fly as far as possible?"

Eric Johnson: Now, he was an expert pilot, he had done this for many, many years. What it let him do is basically decide what angle to fly at, to fly as far as possible. He was actually going to try and land in the Hudson River near 42nd Street, where it turns out there are ferry terminals. It was a very cold day. The air temperature was 19 degrees, the water temperature was 42 degrees and he was very afraid that people would die of hypothermia.

News Announcer: Soon after that, the plane splashed into the water off Manhattan's West Side.

Eric Johnson: Captain Sully picked a spot on the river near the ferry terminal based on the idea that rescuers would be able to reach the plane quickly.

News Announcer: Within minutes, several ferry boats arrived as well as rescue crews. Eventually, passengers made their way onto the wing and then to boats. Moments later, land. Some of the passengers-

Eric Johnson: So, the striking thing is that the gauges in front of Captain Sully simplified his decisions. In some ways, you could argue that you could have provided him with more information. There could have been more gauges breaking down all these different things that told him in more granular detail what was going on. But by providing him with this single gauge that allowed him to find the simplified solution to the problem of how far he could fly, it freed up his mind to think about many other considerations, how cold it was, where to land, what happens if he hit someone in the water, whether the plane would float, all these other considerations that he had just three minutes to consider. He talked about the idea of load shedding and you talk about this idea in the book as well. What is that idea as it applies to choice architecture?

News Announcer: As I was reading the transcripts and interviews with him, he had this wonderful line, which is I immediately decided to load shed and goal sacrifice. And load shedding was basically something he stole and pilots use from the electric power industry. If there's too much demand for power, they load shed. And so, they may decide they're going to shut down the factories and leave the power on to the hospitals. So, what he was doing essentially is saying, "What is the decision I can make at hand?" And he quickly decided he was going to be quite comfortable losing the airplane in order to save lives. So to make that trade off, the gauge actually enabled him to think about the things that were important and not about the things that were less important. And he was able to save all the lives of the entire crew and passengers.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the insights that I took away from the research on choice architecture but also the specific story of what happened with Captain Sully, is the importance of trying to keep things as simple as possible. That in some ways, when things are simple, it frees up your mind to consider all the variables that might suddenly pop up unexpectedly.

Eric Johnson: One of the things that I was really taken by is the fact that the cockpit design is not an accident. They actually use flight simulators so that you actually are training somebody to be a better decision maker. The line I like a lot is one of the manufacturers said, "We put the information there for the pilot exactly when they need it and only if they need it. Anything else is clutter."

Shankar Vedantam: Let's look at another application of choice architecture. In this case, the power of defaults. The State of Oregon has used defaults to increase the likelihood that people get registered to vote. How do they do this, Eric?

Eric Johnson: If you go to Oregon, the Department of Motor Vehicles and you register to get a driver's license, you're automatically a voter. You don't have to fill out another form. It's sometimes called the Motor Voter Registration Law. And it turns out about 20 states have actually adopted a version of this registration by default. And it brings up a really important point, which is what should be the default? Every decision has a default, do we want default people into not being voters or do we want them to default into voters? If someone is a citizen, why should they not be a registered voter?

Shankar Vedantam: By simplifying decision making, we can speed up decisions and get to the best outcome. But there are some times when slowing things down can lead to a better result. Choice architecture can help you do this too. Think about the world of dating, specifically two dating apps, Tinder and Coffee Meets Bagel.

Eric Johnson: The big difference between those sites among other things is that on Tinder, you have almost an infinite number of potential mates. You can keep swiping as long as you have energy left in your thumb. There's actually a phrase called Tinder thumb from the pain you get from doing too much swiping. Coffee Meets Bagel was actually a site that was built by three women. They wanted to do it as a website that actually was better for women. And they made the decision early on to actually give you a limited number of options and originally it was just one option a day. So, think about what you're doing on Tinder, you're not looking carefully to each potential date, you're probably looking at one easy to read attribute, easy not even to read, easy to look at, which is the picture.

Shankar Vedantam: If you're only being matched once a day by contrast, you can slow down, learn a little about your potential date. Maybe get beyond your first impression.

Eric Johnson: When you have one person in front of you and you're not going to get another one for 24 hours, you might go beyond the picture and read the biography, read actually what they're looking for in a mate and actually that leads to very different kinds of processes. Tinder, basically you're picking on who has a cute headshot. You're thinking very differently if you're on Coffee Meets Bagel.

Shankar Vedantam: One of the things that I think this work suggests is a particularly thorny philosophical question, I think, which is that I think we generally have the tendency to assume that we should give people what it is they want. So in other words, that people actually know what it is they want. But of course, if that was the case then people should be able to choose what it is they want regardless of the dating site they're using. What we often find when we look at certain dating sites is that people end up with mates, with partners who are very unlike the specifications that they themselves had laid out at the start of the search process. So someone might say, "I want someone with characteristics A through C," and it turns out that the person they actually like has characteristics D through F. And in some ways, it speaks to the idea that even though we think we know ourselves, very often we don't.

Eric Johnson: I think the basic idea is a very fundamental change the way we think about choice. Economists tend to believe we know what we want and we're simply searching for the right mate. I think the reality of dating and the reality of most choice is that we're trying to figure out what it is we want. We're actually trying to assemble a set of preferences to predict who will make us happy. And that assembly process is actually very different and much more likely to be affected by the choice architecture.

Shankar Vedantam: So, we've looked at several ways in which people's choices can be influenced by the way in which choices are presented to them. Now, that's great when it comes to helping people save more for retirement or to increase voter registration. But let's look at a more complex issue. The researcher, Scott Halper once ran a study where he examined how people make decisions about their end of life care. Volunteers were given forms, which had pre-checked boxes. Some got a form where the checkbox said they would receive comfort care like hospice, others got a form which had the option for prolonged medical intervention checked as the default. What did they find, Eric?

Eric Johnson: It's actually an amazing study because every participant was actually terminally ill with lung cancer. They were actually making the decision that would actually describe how they would die. And the defaults were amazingly powerful. Many more people chose the prolonged care when it was the default than when it was comfort care. What's really important about this study is one other fact, these are very ethical researchers. So, they actually went back to each of the participants and said, "By the way, you got that particular set of defaults randomly. We essentially flipped a coin to determine how you're going to actually face death." And what happened was only two of the subjects actually changed what they chose.

Shankar Vedantam: So, there's a couple of really complicated philosophical conundrums here. So, comfort care was selected 77% of the time when it was the default, but only 43% of the time when life extension, when medical intervention was a default. Now, I don't know about you, Eric, but it makes me very uncomfortable that these tools are so powerful that they can influence our life and death decisions. And then secondly, even when we tell people that we have used those tools, they will still stick to the choices they made, even when they were not aware that the tools were being used on them.

Eric Johnson: So, I am similarly uncomfortable but it's very important to realize that this is what we'll call an assembled preference. That is I'm actually trying to figure out what will be the thing that will make me the most comfortable. And that's a very hard decision, particularly in the case of end of life care.

Shankar Vedantam: But doesn't it raise questions about what actual individual choice is really about? Because it actually suggests that that choice, there isn't some innate choice that's inside us that's waiting to be unearthed that we actually have inside us, it actually is all almost made up on the fly.

Eric Johnson: That's right. And it's not a surprise to me that we don't have an innate preference for one outcome or the other because hopefully, we have never made this decision before and unfortunately we'll never get to make it again. And we can think of both the pros and cons of both sides and what the default does is make us think about versus the other. It's a very troubling result and it's even more troubling when you realize the medical system tends to encourage life extension by the way their forms are constructed.

Shankar Vedantam: Yeah. So, the default for many hospitals and doctors is to actually ask, "How can I prolong life?"

Eric Johnson: Yeah. I actually asked Scott about that and he says, "Yes. In fact, explicitly, unless you make a choice, unless you opt into comfort care, you'll be given life extension care."

Shankar Vedantam: And it's not just the good guys who are reading up on choice architecture, the bad guys are doing it too. We all know companies that sign us up to some subscription at an introductory rate of $1 a month but the fine print says, "Your credit card will be automatically charged $50 a month after three months." And if you try and cancel, it's nearly impossible to find a phone number or if you do find a phone number, you get stuck on hold for two hours as you're trying to cancel. Choice architecture is being used against us all the time.

Eric Johnson: There's a nice name in computer science for that, it's called dark patterns. And they're particularly concerned with the fact where it's easy to opt-in to something to choose like a subscription and it's very hard to get out of it. In fact, they have a nice name for it, it's called a roach motel. The customers come in but they never leave. One of the things that I think is really important to realize is that that's a moral decision that is actually reflected in the choice architecture. I could lie and that may not be moral, but I could also set the choice architecture up in a way that creates bad outcomes for people.

Shankar Vedantam: So, it makes people really angry when they feel like they are being manipulated and I think this is true for all of us. And I think many people worry justifiably that there is something about choice architecture that is undemocratic. You're superficially giving people the choice to make a decision but you've set things up in such a way that they make the decision that you want them to make. Do you worry that choice architecture gives marketers, policy makers, politicians, even experts such as yourself, great power over people?

Eric Johnson: Choice architecture is there whether we're using it to manipulate or not. Someone is deciding lots of things like what is the default, how many options? There's no such thing as no choice architecture. Just because you have your eyes closed, doesn't mean it's not there. So, what I think is an important thing to do is realize that it exists and then to use it to help people make better decisions.

Shankar Vedantam: Eric Johnson is the author of The Elements of Choice: Why The Way We Decide Matters. Eric, thank you for joining us today on Hidden Brain.

Eric Johnson: It's been a huge pleasure. Thank you.

Shankar Vedantam: Hidden Brain is produced by Hidden Brain Media. Our production team includes Brigid McCarthy, Kristin Wong, Laura Kwerel, Ryan Katz, Autumn Barnes and Andrew Chadwick. Tara Boyle is our Executive Producer. I'm Hidden Brain's Executive Editor. Our unsung hero today is Xiaofan Li. Xiaofan is a Hidden Brain listener and supports the show via our Patreon page. As we heard in today's episode, our choices are affected by all sorts of factors, many of which are invisible to us. Choosing to support a podcast takes time, effort and a financial commitment. Thanks for making that decision, Xiaofan, we are really grateful. If you like Hidden Brain, be sure to check out our new podcast, My Unsung Hero. Every episode will boost your faith in humanity in five minutes or less. I'm Shankar Vedantam, see you soon.


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