The hidden details that influence your decisions — and the Aztec way to deal with them
Suddenly, the subsidies stopped coming. They just didn’t arrive. Then, people found the money going to their accounts in Airtel Payments Bank, an entity they didn’t even know existed.
In India, domestic gas connections are subsidised in a slightly roundabout way. Consumers pay the full market rate while buying cylinders, and receive the balance as a refund in their bank-account. The gas — bank link is made using Aadhaar, a national biometric identity system used to verify many other services, including phone-numbers.
So when Airtel, then the country’s largest cellphone provider, launched their Payments Bank Service, they started a simple scheme. When people signed into the “My Airtel” app, they got a pre-ticked checkbox saying “Also sign me up for Airtel Payments Bank”.
Aadhaar was then mandatory for phone-numbers as well as banks (the issue is now in courts), so Airtel had all the data required. And, unless people noticed and un-checked the box, they got signed up automatically.
You find them all over the Internet. The mailing-list you forgot not to sign up for. The free trial that automatically upgrades to paid. The “opt out” option buried in mazes of menus, and the extra charges that snaked on via fine print.
If you’ve encountered these things, then so has Harry Brignull.
A user-experience designer with a PhD in psychology, Brignull decided to document such cases — Dark Patterns, he calls them — to make people more aware and, hopefully, discourage companies from doing it.
Dark Patterns aren’t limited to the online world. There’s one story of a 1927 book-club, which decided to bill its members in advance and send them a book unless they specifically refused it.
Airtel was temporarily banned from using Aadhaar data — but more often than not, practitioners of Dark Patterns get away with it. “The user had all the information”, they say: “They shouldn’t have chosen the option if they didn’t want it.”
That makes some sense, in a world where individuals are expected to look out for themselves. But if you went back to a thousand years ago, the Aztecs wouldn’t agree.
When Sebastian Purcell speaks about studying Aztec philosophy, most people are surprised the Aztecs even had a philosophy.
The Aztecs were the dominant civilisation of central America until the 16th century, when they got overthrown by invaders from Spain. Most people still think of them the way Spanish invaders did: as a primitive race that engaged in human sacrifice.
Actually, the Aztecs had a rich philosophical culture, complete with many volumes of written texts.
What Sebastian Purcell finds interesting is their idea of morals and virtue, or what they call neltiliztli — literally “rootedness”, but also truth, goodness, and so on. While Greek ideas of virtue involve focusing inward, using one’s willpower to overcome vices, the Aztec neltiliztli is more socially-centred and collaborative.
One evening, the economist Richard Thaler had invited a group of fellow economists home for dinner. As the food was getting ready, they sat chatting around a bowl of cashewnuts, which they dipped into from time to time.
Actually, they dipped into it quite a lot. Thaler realised they were dangerously close to emptying the bowl and spoiling their appetites for dinner. So he got up and put them away, out of reach in the kitchen. When he came back, everyone thanked him for it.
As economists, they were intrigued. When Thaler took the bowl away, they ended up with less options than before — so why were they so happy about it? In economics, more options is always a good thing, because if you don’t want the option, you can simply not choose it.
This was one of the many small incidents that Richard Thaler noticed, when humans seemed to defy the laws of economics. And he set off to discover why.
Humans, he realised, are not the rational, logical, choice-making creatures that conventional economics assumes them to be. Humans get distracted by random things — like when they buy extra food for Thursday evening because they happen to be hungry while shopping on Tuesday.
The technical economic term for these random things is “Supposedly Irrelevant Factors”, or SIFs. They’re supposed to be irrelevant. But Thaler decide to figure out which of these things actually were relevant, as far as humans were concerned.
Richard Thaler’s cashewnut observation is, incidentally, what Sebastian Purcell experienced with sweets.
There was a plate of leftover sweets in the living-room, and Purcell, with his sweet tooth, could never resist eating way too many of them. “I just can’t stop eating these!” he remarked to his wife one day, feeling frustrated and irritated about the whole thing.
When he came home, Purcell noticed the sweets were gone. “Oh,” his wife explained to him, “I just took it to work and gave it to the students.” Just like that, Purcell’s cycle of temptation and guilt was broken.
Purcell points out two aspects of this episode. Firstly, he didn’t overcome his vice so much as manage it. And secondly, he didn’t manage it on his own with willpower, but rather with (almost entirely) the help of someone else.
The Aztecs realised that nobody can be perfect forever. The earth is tlalticpac, or slippery and slick, they said: everybody is bound to slip up. So, it’s up to others to help them stay on the right path.
The modern world is full of people helping you stay on a path — though whether it’s the right path or not is debatable.
Take supermarkets, for instance. Have you noticed that things like vegetables and groceries — which are what people usually come to buy — are located right at the back of th eshop? That’s to make you walk past all the other shelves, increasing the chance that something else which catch your eye that you’ll decide to pick up as well.
The design of bus-stop seats is a bit more understandable, at least from your point of view. The seats are raised high or come with hard backrests and high armrests, making them ever so slightly uncomfortable. This is intentional: it’s to prevent people from hanging around unnecessarily, unless they’re actually waiting for a bus.
Airtel’s “Payments Bank” checkbox is sending you on a path too: that of signing up for their service. Europe’s General Data Protection Regulation, or GDPR, was created to prevent this sort of thing: it mandates “informed consent”, which means customers should be aware of what they’re agreeing to. A pre-filled checkbox is not “informed consent”.
When Richard Thaler learnt about the subtle, un-economic ways people can get influenced, he saw it as a great opportunity to do good. What if companies, or even the government, used these influences to help people make the right choices?
Thaler teamed up with lawyer Cass Sunstein, to develop the idea. They called their philosophy “libertarian paternalism” which sounds like an oxymoron at first, but basically means guiding people to the most sensible decisions while still allowing them to make their own choices — in a spirit very like the Aztecs’ neltiliztli.
But “libertarian paternalism” is a mouthful to say. So the team also came up with a term to describe how they would influence people: the Nudge.
Nudges can be subtle. They could be as simple as changing the wording of an income-tax document to make people more likely to pay, or auto-enrolling them in a saving-for-retirement scheme so they don’t keep “meaning to set it up at some point but never getting round to it”.
Putting fruits and salads first in the cafeteria line and rich desserts at the end makes people more likely to choose the healthier option. And lowering the default thermostat temperature could (in cold countries) immediately produce a lot energy savings.
Nudges don’t have to come from companies or governments. They can also come from you.
Entrepreneur James Clear has written a whole book on the subject. In Atomic Habits, he describes various ways you can nudge yourself to do things, much like Richard Thaler hiding away the cashewnuts (although he apparently sneaked a few more into his mouth on the way to the kitchen).
Want to send more thank-you-cards? Leave a pile of stationery on your desk, James Clear advices. Want to check social-media less often? Don’t keep the phone by your bedside. Want to drink more water? Keep a bottle at your desk.
These simple changes work as nudges, helping you make the decisions you want to. Don’t forget: the Aztecs may help you stay on the right path, but you need to do your bit too.
The supermarket nudging you to buy more, and Airtel nudging you to sign up, are examples of nudges gone wrong. To avoid going the same way, Thaler and Sunstein have set clear principles for themselves.
Their nudges always direct people towards decisions that they’d probably have made themselves if they’d had time to think about it — like choosing healthier food or saving on electricity. What’s more, nudges should be easy to opt out of: the decision shouldn’t be forced, and opting out or choosing a different option should be effortless. Nudges should only suggest, not coerce.
Putting salads first is a valid nudge. Banning junk-food isn’t.
Of course, sometime the lines aren’t so clear.
The Aztecs have a phrase, in qualli in yectli, which means “the good and the straight” — but they don’t define what exactly it is. That’s because peoples’ perceptions and ideas are always changing. Dissecting a dog without anæsthesia used to be acceptable. Now it certainly isn’t: there are always more edge-cases and new perspectives to be discovered.
That’s why Aztec morals weren’t something you learn as a child: in their culture, it was an ongoing process that continued throughout one’s life.
Thaler and Sunstein, and the many other people now in the “nudge” movement, are also figuring out things as they go along. Some experiments work out, and some don’t — you can never predict it in advance.
But with good planning, and a bit of luck, they’ll end up making the world a little less tlalticpac.
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