In this episode of High Theory, Eli Cook tells us about choice architecture. The term was invented by behavioral economists in 2008 who proposed it as a soft-power model of “libertarian paternalism” to influence consumer choice. Eli traces their concept through a twentieth-century history of structured choices, from personality tests and the five-star rating to the swipes and likes of platform capitalism. He shifts our attention from the rhetoric of consumer choice as freedom to the power of “choice architects” who determine the options for us.
Eli takes the term “choice architecture” from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale UP, 2008). He mentions the industrial psychologist Walter Dill Scott and the inventors of behavioral economics, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman. Amusingly, there is a New Yorker article about Tversky and Kahneman written by Thaler and Sunstein, called “The Two Friends Who Changed How We Think About How We Think.” (New Yorker 7 Dec 2016). In the full version of our conversation, Eli referenced the work of Sophia Rosenfeld on the longue durée history of choice.
Eli Cook is a historian of American capitalism. He works as a Senior Lecturer in History and as head of the American Studies Program at the University of Haifa in Israel. His first book The Pricing of Progress: Economic Indicators and the Capitalization of American Life was published by Harvard University Press in 2017. Last year, he was a fellow at the Stanford Humanities Center where he worked on his new book about choice architecture.
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