I am reading a wonderful book. It's called "Nudge," by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and it deals with the way seemingly small factors can have a disproportionately large influence on the decisions we make.
Take, for example, a school cafeteria. You might think that kids will eat whatever they want out of what's on offer. In reality, the order in which the food is displayed can mean the difference between an obese student population and a fit one. Supermarkets and consumer packaged goods companies know this as well, which is why that magic eye-level shelf is so coveted.
From Thaler and Sunstein's perspective, "choice architecture" is one of the most critical roles in existence today. It's vital because humans don't make decisions based on complete, nonbiased information. Instead, we make decisions based on factors like how much time we have, how difficult the choice seems, and whether the cost, regardless of magnitude, is immediate or far away.
One of the biggest factors is one of the most passive: inertia. What's the default option, the one I don't have to think about in any way? Even decisions as significant as what health insurance we choose or whether or not we set up a 401(k) are often made on the basis of which option is easiest to select.
In today's world, the undisputed king of choice architecture is Google. Google's entire purpose is to help people get to the best option as quickly as possible, with "best" being defined by some sort of mythical objectivity. The company seeks to present information that is somehow relevant to the individual without any bias from either the websites being put forward or the search engine itself.
I say "mythical" because it is exactly that. There is no such thing as objectivity, not in quantum physics and not in search. In both, the observer fundamentally changes the thing being observed. Children's diets are affected whether food gets positioned randomly or with intent; there is no neutral option.
Our incredible susceptibility to environmental factors is reflective of the power choice architects wield over our lives. We make most of our decisions unconsciously, giving greater consideration to factors of environment and presentation than to factors inherent to the product itself. And this unconscious decision-making process means the fact that competition is "only a click away" doesn't provide any kind of true market regulation.
When we perform a search on Google, we do not perform the same search on Bing to compare results and make sure we are getting the answer best suited to our needs. We certainly don't then repeat the process backwards to ensure we're not just subconsciously punishing Bing for going second. Google's choice architecture affects the purchase decisions of millions of people, as well as the livelihoods of all of those businesses that depend on search rankings for revenue and profitability.
Last week The New York Times published an editorial calling for some manner of oversight of Google. The piece was careful to note the dangers of overreacting: we don't, for example, want to inhibit Google from innovating or reduce the value of its searches. But Americans alone are conducting more than 10 billion searches on Google sites every month; that's 10 billion choices being dramatically affected by the way a single company lays out the food in the cafeteria.
If there were ever a case for search neutrality, our own irrationally vulnerable decision-making process would be it.
As always, I'm keen to hear your thoughts, here or on @kcolbin.