Tuesday, August 9, 2011

Decision Landscaping and Choice Architecture: Tools for Low-tech Mind Control

     Choice architecture has been around for several decades or more. It’s the art of arranging selections so that people tend to select pretty much what you want them to make.

     Let’s say your company was hired to run a high school cafeteria. What do you want the students to do when they go through the serving line? Select the foods that are healthiest for them? Select the foods that cost your company the least to provide? Make selections on according to some other criteria?
     You already know that foods placed near the beginning of the serving line are more likely to be selected than those at the end; that foods placed at eye level are more likely to be selected than foods placed some other way; and that foods set apart from the natural flow of the serving line are less likely to be selected.
     What if you were running a newspaper? Unless you had no opinions on anything, you would probably use some form of choice architecture in your editorial policies whether you realized it or not.
     I coined the term decision landscaping to describe how opinion molders use the principles of choice architecture so that some decisions are automatically rejected as  “beyond the pale” or will not even enter our heads. Under the idea of decision landscaping, certain other decisions are decisions not at all; they’re simply the acceptance of the default setting that we have been given.
     I first became aware of decision landscaping—though I didn’t call it that at the time—during the Watergate Era. A commentator contrasted media coverage of the Watergate scandal to the Chappaquiddick homicide.
     Senator Ted Kennedy drove 32-year old Mary Jo Kopechne off a bridge one night. Over the next four hours, Kopechne gasped trapped air until she finally died of asphyxiation, as Kennedy spent those hours conferring with his lawyers on how to spin the episode.
     After three weeks of stepping on his own tongue and watching his nose grow ever longer, Kennedy offered his final flimsy excuse and announced that he’d say no more on the matter. Charges were mysteriously dropped, and the media just as mysteriously lost interest in the homicide story in which a United States senator was at the center.
     Since Watergate is recorded in every high school history book, there’s no need to go over it. In a nutshell, President Nixon committed crimes for which he deserved to be driven from office and probably prosecuted. In contrast with the three weeks of media publicity the Kopechne homicide received, the media spent about a hundred twelve weeks daily digging into Watergate.
     The commentator on the contrast wrote something like, “The media can not determine what we think, but they can determine what we think about.” Determining what people think about, and whether some thoughts are default as others are customized, are at the heart of decision landscaping.
     Most of the people reading this article already have the ability to question the default setting that the opinion molders offer us. Unfortunately, I’ve seen even the best informed pundits make the mistake of reinforcing the aims the Establishment’s decision landscaping.
     To give one example, how do most 9/11 skeptics approach the issue? Almost always, they address the default conspiracy theory—which we’ve been told many times is official and factual, therefore reliable—as if to pay homage to it. Their listeners (or readers) are then placed in a frame of mind in which the person putting forth an “alternative” theory has to defend and even prove his theory. Any flaw in the theory then is taken as proof that the listener shouldn’t go to the trouble of changing the default setting in his brain. It’s extremely difficult for a person to unthink something that he is hardwired to accept as fact.
     How should we approach the the 9/11 debate? We should approach it the same way a scientist approaches a phenomenon. He asks what caused the phenomenon, looks for facts, and uses reason to deduce the answer. He often begins with a hypothesis, while recognizing that a hypothesis by definition is a belief of which you’re uncertain.
     That’s also the way that police investigators approach a crime scene. With the exception of certain high-profile crimes such as the assassinations of the Kennedys and King, or 9/11, he begins with a hypothesis and does what a scientist does. He doesn’t establish a theory and collect only the evidence that seems to support the theory, as they did in the cases I’ve just mentioned. By the way, if it looks as though the crime was committed by more than one person, the police investigator’s hypothesis is a conspiracy theory.
     In discussing these crimes or other controversial issues—controversial issue being defined as an issue on which two or more sides have strongly conflicting views—we should ask more and preach less. “What caused the towers to fall?” you might ask. “Oh, I can see that you’re familiar with the issue,” you may say to his reply. “And what is the melting point of steel, and how hot does burning jet fuel get?” Instead of putting yourself into a position of having to prove a theory of your own, put your listener into a thoughtful frame of mind concerning the official conspiracy theory. Whenever possible, ask questions that have obvious answers, such as, “Have you ever heard a commercial airliner passing over at a low altitude?” (“Yes, of course,” he would reply, “they’re so loud that they’re hard to miss.” Most people may then wonder why most 9/11 “witnesses” failed to hear either plane passing over.
     Learn to present facts that your listener already knows but hasn’t considered. Most people have all the facts they need to be skeptical of the default theory, but they’ve been conditioned to ignore them. The corporate media has them sold on the idea that the question is settled; it’s the default setting.
     One myth (that people are hardwired to accept as fact) is that newspapers have a financial stake in telling the truth. I devised the three diagrams on this page for students.  Here's a diagram of the official version of the landscape:
      Actually, newspaper readers are among the least of a newspaper’s stakeholders. Here’s the way the landscape really looks:
     Of course, no newspaper just has advertisers; the advertisers have company names. No newspaper just has owners; the owners have names; and so forth. Let’s look at some of the names that show up among the stakeholders of large newspapers:
     As you can see, the default "news" sources have reasons for lying big time. 
    This article is longer than I had intended it to be. I’m glad you’re still reading. Those who have already set the article aside don’t know that I’m glad.
     Here’s the thought I want you to take away from this lesson. Be aware that your decisions are more than just a matter of reasoning through available facts. Decision landscapers are using every trick they know to determine what facts you will even consider. Opinion molders will do all they can to make the official version of events the default setting. Don’t just question the official version of events; question the way selections are arranged for your consideration. Free your mind.


  1. Nice article. I like your 'decision architecture' -- reminds me of (was it Goebbels) what used to be called the 'opinion-forming media'. Which seemed patently redundant to me, since the media exist primarily to shape opinion --- and especially to point readers/listeners AWAY from the really sensitive and relevant points!

  2. Thanks. Of late, I've been paying more attention to an upcoming Conversation class more than this blog. I had been stumped by my utter failure to teach previous classes critical thinking skills. I had to go deeper into Roqueach's Onion, Plato's cave, the Matrix, and so on, to ferret out just how opinions are formed.
    You may want to check out my take on how advertisers limit our options by defining them for us: http://americanactionreport.blogspot.com/2011/03/common-sense-benefits-and-peaceful.html

  3. GW, I have posted this on my blog. I can't believe I missed this one. Its great and so so true. Go check it out on sunday. Keep up the good work.