Making and Framing Better Decisions: The Elements of Choice

The Elements of Choice

We all make countless decisions every day, both large and small. Sometimes we make these decisions in a split second, and sometimes we agonize over them for days, weeks, and even months. But how are we actually making those decisions?

How much control do you believe you have over the choices you make? We like to believe that we are in complete control of our lives, setting our own course. But in his new book, The Elements of Choice, Columbia Business School professor Eric J. Johnson demonstrates that how a choice is presented to us is often one of the biggest factors in the decision we actually make.

The framing of a decision, the description given to different options, the order difference choices are presented, and the presence or absence of a default selection are all examples of factors that have been proven to affect the decisions we make, regardless of the content of those choices. It all adds up to choice architecture, the decisions made by the person presenting the choice (the designer) that subtly influence the actions of the chooser.

Early in the book, Johnson includes a great example that illustrates his point. When doctors are writing prescriptions, how do they choose whether to prescribe a generic or name-brand medication? Generics can be significantly cheaper for patients, so policy-makers have long encouraged physicians to choose generics – but struggled to get them to actually do so. Reminders to prescribe generics didn’t work. Neither did even paying doctors to prescribe generics!

So what might actually work? It turned out that the biggest factor influencing prescriptions was the doctor’s electronic health record system. Old systems were designed to helpfully autocomplete when the doctor began entering the medication name, but were based on exact match. The brand names are easier to remember, and doctors were in the habit of prescribing them, so they would begin to type the name, up it would pop, so they would choose it and move on. A simple change to the system made all the difference. If, when the doctor begins typing the prescription, both the brand name and its generic alternative both appear, the doctor is now much more likely to select the generic. The way the choice was presented, what information they were seeing, impacted the selection even more than intent or financial incentive!

The Elements of Choice is intended to help you as both a decision maker and designer. As Johnson points out, the tools of choice architecture are morally neutral; they can be used for both good and evil depending on the designer. And whenever someone presents a choice, they are engaging in choice architecture whether they realize it or not, leading to some poorly framed alternatives. Understanding how those tools work helps decision makers recognize when they are being manipulated, or at least to overcome negligent choice architecture.

And as a business owner, understanding choice architecture helps you to frame things better for clients and prospects. When you present alternatives to a client, are you unwittingly pushing them toward a worse choice? You can’t make the choice for someone, but you can present a choice in a way that indicates what you truly believe would be the best option for that person.

We highly recommend The Elements of Choice as a book that will help you in both your life and your business, with a strong commitment to smart, ethical choice architecture and wiser, more-informed decision making.

The Elements of Choice is available on Amazon or you can order it from


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