The Planner as Choice Architect

Part One of a series: “Why should planners care about behavioral economics?”

What are planners good for?

Within the profession, we can think of a lot of things we do and hats we wear: we’re writers. Designers. Analysts. We make maps and charts and videos. We manage people and projects. Sometimes we’re salespeople, trying to reassure the public or get a winning project bid.

Some of these roles are fun. Many are important. But none of them are at the core of what planners do–in fact, most of us aren’t especially good at most of them! Architects and LArchs are often stronger designers, and engineers and economists more sophisticated analysts and modelers. While we may know our way around Photoshop, we’re not professional artists, and try as we might to convince the public of our infinite wisdom, we’re not professional liars–er, politicians.

So what’s our niche?

One standard planning answer goes something like this: we have a mix of creative and analytical skills, but our real strength is bringing different perspectives and interests together to think farther into the future than other groups do. This, too, is an important part of our job, and it’s an ideal that (I think) attracted lots of us to the profession. But I don’t think it’s unique. Authors, journalists, academics of all stripes, technologists, and politicians are all in the market of selling us interesting visions of the future of the city and of urban life. And while these voices are often criticized for fixating on big, hypothetical game-changers, planners often ignore those changes entirely, planning decades into the future while assuming that current trends will stabilize to a status quo or some ‘new normal’.

I would like to suggest that we have a different role, one that’s meaningful, powerful, and unique in our context. It’s a role that we’re already performing, but that we’re only beginning to study explicitly. That role is choice architect.

In their 2008 book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe the manager–let’s call her Ellen–of a public school system’s cafeterias who learns that students walking through the lunch line tend to take more of whatever foods are at eye level. Put cookies and pizza in that space? Kids eat more of it. Replace them with salad and whole grains? Kids eat more of them too. Nothing about the options in front of the students changed–they could still get their pizza and cookies, and they weren’t paying anything more for them. In economic terms, their incentives were exactly the same!

Ellen has a couple options: should she leave the items the way they were, or perhaps place them randomly to make the children’s choices ‘fair’? Or should she use this information to help kids choose healthier foods? Thaler and Sunstein call Ellen a choice architect: she has the ability to frame the decision that her students make in order to promote a particular set of goals, without restricting their freedom to ultimately make their own choice.

Like the cafeteria manager, planners often find themselves with the job of putting options in front of people–whether it’s our colleagues, the public, or the politicians and officials who ultimately get to choose what gets implemented. More often than not, our research is for someone else’s benefit, not our own, and we often view our responsibility as simply providing accurate information to that decision-maker. But as planners, we’re not just serving up information–we also get to choose, metaphorically, what to put at eye level!

The more we know about how people, both as individuals and groups, process information and make decisions, the better equipped we are to ensure that those decisions are good ones. Of course, this immediately raises the question of who gets to decide what a good decision is. As choice architects, our goal shouldn’t be to impose a particular outcome–doing that is a good way to get fired, and we’re not likely to be very effective at it anyway. What we can and should do is exactly what Thaler and Sunstein advocate: “influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” Our goal shouldn’t be to trick people into choices they’ll resent, but the opposite: to help them avoid regrets and make decisions they’ll be able to judge as the right call in the future.

Visioning, facilitation, and structured decision making techniques are all good first steps towards this that we can use today, but I believe behavioral economics has many more lessons for how planners can put good choices at eye level–or at least move obviously bad choices a little farther away. In future posts, I’ll be unpacking some of the key lessons on why people (including you and me!) process information and decide poorly, what interventions can help them (us!) do better, and some ideas about how planners can use this information.


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