Decision Architecture Goes to School

Recent evidence from a variety of discipines demonstrates how the design of buildings and the influence of objects shape human behavior in incredible ways. For instance, escalators and clean-scented rooms both promote charitable giving. Smaller plates and utensils encourage people to eat less. The open atrium design of the Pixar building is meant to encourage spontaneous, productive meetings. These behaviorial influences from objects and design are what economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein call a “nudge.” One of the most prominent examples of nudging in their book comes from examples of small redesigns in school cafeterias that can promote healthier eating behavior in children. While their example is largely hypothetical, the Atlantic Monthly reports that cafeterias are successfully using nudges to encourage healthy habits:

One school in upstate New York was able to increase consumption of salads by close to 300 percent by simply moving their salad bar six feet from the wall and placing it near a natural bottleneck in the check-out line. Another school increased fruit sales by 105 percent by moving the apples and oranges from stainless steel bins into a well-lit and attractive basket.

Even better, the Atlantic article links to this very cool interactive graphic from the New York Times that details effective nudges used to foster healthy eating in cafeterias. Such object-oriented persuasion should remind technical communicators that words and images are not the only tools available for influencing human behavior.

Still, not everyone is a fan of the nudge concept. Three recent books critique the idea as insufficient and dangerous, and Bloomberg Businessweek reports that one of the Obama administration’s economic nudges did not have the desired effect (though in all fairness, nudges in Thaler and Sunstein’s conception should be in the best interest of the people committing the behavior, and this nudge was geared towards benefitting the economy as a whole). Regardless, as one of the prominent contemporary ideas, technical communicators may want to start thinking even more about the role of objects in persuasion and behavior.

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