Choice Architecture, Honesty, and Language


Digital consultant Paul Wood listed the six principles of good choice architecture for interactive websites, starting with the importance of incentive, because the natural human response is to ask “What’s in it for me?” Then there is mapping, which helps the customer understand exactly what they are getting. This is crucial for website design because an actual person is not present to explain, or answer questions.

Because people tend to do whatever is easiest, choice architecture demands that the response desired by the architect is the default choice. The architect must also build in a feedback mechanism, and carefully structure complex ideas, and expect error.

Research needs carefully structured architecture

An issue particularly vital to obesity research is that self-reporting can be accidentally inaccurate, and it can also be purposefully misleading. Bureaucracies benefit from the discovery that asking a person to sign her or his name at the beginning of a form, rather than at the end, encourages honest answers.

A recent study showed that saying to participants “Please don’t be a cheater” is twice as effective as asking them not to cheat. A self-relevant noun like “cheater” invokes a group identity, and cheaters is a group that people don’t want to admit belonging to, even if they are cheaters.

“Please don’t cheat,” where the word is a verb instead of a noun, is too abstract to have the same psychological effect. The study authors say:

These results demonstrate the power of a subtle linguistic difference to prevent even private unethical behavior by invoking people’s desire to maintain a self-image as good and honest.

Psychologist Christopher J. Bryan learned that children age 3 to 6 will respond better to the suggestion that they “be a helper” (noun) rather than asking them to help (verb). A similar experiment in generosity, centered around giving away marbles, also showed the efficacy of linguistic finesse. The New York York Times writer Adam Grant wrote:

The message from this research is loud and clear: If you don’t model generosity, preaching it may not help in the short run, and in the long run, preaching is less effective than giving while saying nothing at all.

However, the window where this works best is rather narrow. At age 5 it is effective in the moment, but soon wears off; and 10 is too old, in the sense that praising character does not provide an edge any longer, but is equally as effective as praising action.

Making the connection between generosity and character (rather than to a discrete action) works best around age 8 when, Grant says, “children may be starting to crystallize notions of identity.” He also carefully examines the important difference between shame and guilt, and explains why the latter is healthy and useful.

Obesity Prevention: The Role of Brain and Society on Individual Behavior by Laurette Dube (lead editor) and six other authors, is an 832-page book published in 2010, available online as a PDF file. It contains a chapter titled “The Choice Architecture and What it Means for Obesity Prevention,” with a section titled “A Whole-of-Society Approach to Obesity Prevention.”

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “The Six Principles of Good Choice Architecture,”, 08/19/14
Source: “When cheating would make you a cheater: Implicating the self prevents unethical behavior,”, 2016
Source: “Raising a Moral Child,”, 04/11/14
Source: “Obesity Prevention: The Role of Brain and Society on Individual Behavior,” IodineThailand.fda, 2010
Photo credit: Barbara Eckstein (beckstei) on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
You can contact Dr. Pretlow at:


Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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