Life is full of choices, often in digital environments. People interact with e-government applications; trade financial products online; buy products in Web shops; book hotel rooms on mobile booking apps; and make decisions based on content presented in organizational information systems. All such choices are influenced by the choice environment, as reflected in this comment: "What is chosen often depends upon how the choice is presented."16 Why? People have cognitive limitations, so their rationality is bounded,27 and heuristics and biases drive their decision making.34 Designers of choice environments, or "choice architects,"32 can thus use these heuristics and biases to manipulate the choice environment to subtly guide users' behavior by gently "nudging" them toward certain choices.
These observations are more than theory. We are being nudged every day of our lives. Supermarkets position items with the highest markups at eye level to nudge customers into making unplanned purchases. Likewise, supermarkets limit the number of units customers are allowed to buy, thereby influencing their buying decisions; customers subconsciously anchor their decisions on the maximum number and adjust downward from there, resulting in purchases of greater quantities.36 This effect has been demonstrated in the context of everyday items; for example, introducing a quantity limit of 12 cans of soup helped double the average quantity purchased from 3.3 to seven cans.36 Nudges are not, however, used only by marketers trying to sell more products or services; for example, when asking people to consent to being an organ donor, simply changing defaults can influence people's choices. Setting the default to "dissent," whereby donors have to opt out, rather than "consent" whereby donors have to opt in, can nearly double the percentage of organ donors.15 These examples show that largely imperceptible nudges are effective in a variety of offline contexts.
Is it just me, maybe I am being naive, and maybe this type of user psychology manipulation makes me feel a little uncomfortable, in the ethics department? Or is it just a case of caveat emptor, and put your trust in honest user interfaces in the freezer?