I’m a “choice architect”, and you can be too

Yes, I’m still talking about the cool ideas that I have taken from books (the actual, printed-on-paper kind, which still have a lot to tell us, even in 2012!) over the past couple of months.

This week, it’s about Nudge, a book that considerably more social-sciencey than I normally read and, nonetheless, completely applicable to my advocacy practice.

And, I think, to yours.

Much of the premise is that what we think are ‘free choices’ are really choices framed by choice architecture, the sets of incentives and disincentives and defaults that outline some options as clearly superior, others as inferior, and still others as seemingly impossible.

The idea, then, is that, if we can frame our preferences such that they are more naturally appealing to those who are doing the choosing, we can shape the likely outcome in less-obtrusive, but no less powerful, ways.

Like the way that my kids are WAY more likely to choose fruit as their snack if it’s already cut and in individual packaging (because then it’s theirs), and at eye-level (even more if there’s no other option, but, then, we couldn’t call it ‘choice’ architecture, could we?)

What this means for advocacy, I think, is that we need to think more about how we get that elusive ‘eye-level’ placement for our policy alternatives. We need to spend more energy making our policy preferences the easiest ones to choose, so that, perhaps, we can spend a bit less energy trying to convince people that they should really, really, really choose them.

Mostly, I think this is about framing, about how we wrap our policy alternatives in the values and preferences of those who will be doing the choosing.

Especially because we believe there are multiple routes to most good ends, can we opt for those that are likeliest to be chosen by our policy targets? Can we use the tax code, for example, to increase low-income families’ incomes? Can we talk about economic security, instead of always talking about poverty? Can we ‘reward work’ and ‘protect families’, because doing so makes policymakers more apt to choose as we would?

But I think looking at policy advocacy as the practice of choice architecture needs to also encompass building better frames, the step before fitting our policy approaches into that framing structure. Much like, quite honestly, those who do not necessarily share social work values have done for decades, which is precisely why the current choice architecture is mostly incompatible with the kinds of policy aims we articulate.

It means that we need to adjust the shelf height, I guess, so that people are looking where we need them to look–at the corrosive effects of income inequality, at the dangers of global climate change, at the need for educational competitiveness.

It means that we can’t rush in to fit our solution onto the current problem definition, because that’s inevitably going to require a tremendous amount of pushing.

It means that, if we do the right work in advance, people should think that our ideas were…theirs.

Freely chosen.

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