Hidden Partners

An article from the series "Elephants & Butterflies" – Science in a nutshell

Our choices depend on our options. Psychologist Eric Johnson looks at how the design of choices can push us towards decisions that are either good or bad for us. One of his aims is to improve labels that disclose information to motivate sustainable behavior.

All our choices are influenced by what I like to call “hidden partners.” Before we make a decision, someone else has designed how we can make that choice, whether it is in a supermarket or on a website. On a dating site, for example, someone determines whether you should be presented with just two potential dates or an infinite number. The design choice thus influences who you might end up spending the rest of your life with. In this case, the hidden partners are the website designers or the designers behind the site’s dating system.

Choice design is impossible to avoid. There is no way to make neutral choices as consumers; we are always presented with options to choose from. The question is whether the choice design helps us make a good decision or nudges us in the direction of someone else’s interests. Hidden partners can do both, i.e. hide information from us and lie to us or reveal all the relevant information and be honest. Like everything in life, it is an ethical question. Our research has shown that people who are less well-off and less educated tend to be more easily influenced, which suggests that if you do not focus on good choice design, you are hurting the population’s most vulnerable.

Let me give an example: We studied how people in the U.S. choose between health insurance policies and it turned out that they tend to overweight the monthly fees and care less about payments they would have to make every time they see a doctor. As a result, they didn't choose the best policies because they were unable to do the math. So we did the calculations for them, telling them, “If you went to the doctor five times, this is what your total bill would look like.” We built a choice design that considerably improved their decisions.

In a sense, we are all choice designers, for example when we present a friend with options for dining out or offer our boss strategies to pursue. If parents ask their children whether they want to go to bed, they might get into terrible fights over it. But if they make a different choice design and ask, “Do you want to fly to bed?”, the fight is over. How we frame options can really change the choices other people make and how satisfied they are with their decision. The child might then think: “I had a lot of fun going to bed!”

My field of research is cognitive psychology. I want to understand why people make good or less good decisions and what influences that. If someone presents us with different dish detergents to choose from or potential spouses to live with, what will our final decision be and what is it that gets us from the stimulus to the response?

My field of research is cognitive psychology. I want to understand why people make good or less good decisions and what influences that

To find that out, we conduct experiments on the web. We present people with hypothetical shopping sites and analyze their eye movements to track what they look at and for how long, as well as what they tend to ignore. We also carry out tests in real-world situations and use real data, for example from organ donor registries to find out about people’s willingness to become an organ donor and how this is influenced by choice design. It turned out that people were less willing to donate in countries where they need to opt in actively compared to countries in which organ donation is the default option.

The aim of our Berlin project is to try to understand what people know about the link between their own behavior and carbon emissions. Why do they buy (or not buy) products that are sustainable or (not) behave in a sustainable way? Part of the reason for unsustainable decisions lies in a lack of information on the consequences. We asked people which fast-food restaurants or other companies they would prefer from a sustainability perspective and ranked them according to their carbon footprint. What we saw was that people have very little clue about the impacts of their decisions because hidden partners keep the relevant information from them. 

There is a real need for information, and we are looking at how we can intervene, for example with voluntary or mandatory disclosure labels. I hope that the project will allow us to gain a better idea of how to design such labels so that people are empowered with the kind of information they need.

Transcript by Mirco Lomoth