Eric Johnson: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Every Day Decisions

“Would you like vanilla, chocolate or strawberry?”

When presented with simple decisions like these, most of us will instinctively pick our favorite from the three options, without ever considering that there may be many more ice cream flavors available.

Columbia Business School professor, Eric Johnson is the lead researcher behind some of the most well-known and cited research on decision-making. And one of his key conclusions is that most of us give insufficient attention to what he calls “choice architecture, the many aspects of how a choice is posed to us that can be manipulated, intentionally or inadvertently, to influence the decisions we make.”

Assume you own the ice cream store & have determined that sales of vanilla, chocolate & strawberry scoops earn you the most money. Promoting these flavors alone – and not pushing all the others you have – is in your best interest from a profit standpoint. But it also intentionally fails to inform customers who love Rocky Road & mint chocolate chip that these & other options are available as well.

Through his research, Johnson has proven that the choices we make every day – whether it’s buying a health insurance plan, deciding how to invest for our own retirement or ordering a sandwich – are rarely entirely of own making. Whomever designs the “choice architecture” holds great influence in how we decide. And too often, we make choices that are not in our best interests because we don’t realize that we’re being steered in directions that don’t serve us best. We’re influenced by subtle aspects of the way the choice is presented that often make the difference between a good decision & a bad one.

Johnson is the author of the new bestseller, “The Elements of Choice: Why The Way We Decide Matters,” & in it, reminds us that we too (especially leaders) are the architects of the choices other people make. And, as designers of decisions, we need to consider all the elements involved in presenting a choice: how many options to offer, how to present those options, how to account for our natural cognitive shortcuts, & much more. These levers are unappreciated, & we are often unaware of just how much they influence our reasoning every day.

A recent guest on NPR’s “Hidden Brain” podcast with Shankar Vedantam, Eric Johnson joins us to provide a leadership clinic on “choice architecture.” You’ll be amazed to hear how often the daily decisions you make are not truly of your own, & to learn the informed ways you can make far better choices going forward.


By Mark C. Crowley

Mark C. Crowley is the author of Lead From The Heart: Transformational Leadership For The 21st Century which has been taught in 11 American universities. He is a global speaker, leadership consultant and thought leader on the topics of workplace culture and employee engagement.