I went grocery shopping the other day and an errand that should have been pretty quick to twice the amount of time I had planned. The culprit? Choice.

Don’t get me wrong. I’m a big fan of free will and I believe we should be empowered to make our own decisions, but that didn’t mean that I need to be able to pick from a dozen different kinds of ketchup (e.g. no corn syrup, fat free, classic, sriracha). It’s a bit overwhelming. And it’s very likely that the ketchup display was designed to make me linger over my choices. Certainly, the grocery store is designed to get me to buy things I wasn’t planning on buying (Just think about how far the milk and eggs is from the front of the store in your local supermarket).

I’m reasonably sure that one of my daughters has the same problem when she stands in front of her closet in the morning trying to get dressed. It’s a pretty frustrating process as she goes through multiple outfits as we rush to get everyone out of the house in time for school and work. We shouldn’t be surprised, though, since her closet is filled with a seemingly infinite number of clothing choices and combinations.

How the choices in front of us are presented can dictate how much choice we actually have. Behavioral economist Dan Ariely described a variety of ways that our choices are structured for us. One example that he shared in his TED Talk was about how people opt-in or opt-out of organ donation at the DMV. Separate from any beliefs about the value of organ donation, simply switching from an opt-out form where you have to actively choose not to donate your organs from an opt-in can drastically increase the number of people consenting to organ donation. As Ariely points out, the designer of the form has a huge impact on our choices.

As parents, we need to think about how we present choices to our children. Are we making it easy for them to opt-in to our preferred behavior or is it easier for them to opt-out? Are there too many choices in front of them and have you thought through what the options are? Can they easily be distracted by options that you don’t want them to consider?

Armed with these questions, we re-approached our daughter’s clothing selections. We realized that her closet wasn’t designed to facilitate her choices (it was designed to store her clothing). Now, she pre-selects her clothing on the weekend when we’re not in a rush and places it in an empty drawer in her dresser. She can take her time selecting her clothes and our frustration level is greatly reduced. Then, we close the closet door since seeing the extra clothes is a distraction. Each morning now, she has no more than 5 choices in front of her.

Do you have a similar challenge at home? Try this choice (re)designer to help you guide your child towards the acceptable choices.

 

  1. What do you want your child to be doing?
  2. What choices do they have in front of them?
  3. What choice are they defaulting to?
  4. Formulate a hypothesis as to why do think this is happening.
  5. Test your hypothesis by making a change.
  6. Observe what happens. Did you get the result that you were looking for? If not, go back to the first step and repeat.

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