Yesterday’s article introduced the idea of a “nudge” through the customer’s experience at the grocery store. This is a regular, routine-oriented experience within a choice-rich environment. If you count the things you don’t choose to buy, a typical visit at the grocery store could theoretically involve thousands of decisions. There are decisions you planned to make, those you planned not to make, and those in-the-moment decisions that are much more of a spontaneous temptation born from a nudge. At the heart of this week’s book is the idea that we can use its concepts to help people make the most of that temptation, to bend it in the most positive fashion possible.

At the grocery store, this would presumably equate to more fresh, wholesome food purchased instead of the prepackaged stuff. Since that makes a better food diet.

But what about information diets? I’ve written a few times (here and here) on the power of information flows; these flows are the equivalent of staple foods that you always keep in your mental pantry. How can that those staples, those flows of information, be as healthy and wholesome as possible? Free of proverbial “bad stuff” a’la clickbait, rage-inducing rhetoric, and vapid content?

How did it ever get that way in the first place?

Attention Economy, Sugar Economy

It seems that the war in the grocery store for your food dollar is built on taste. Yes, people want to be healthy and produce is never going out of style. But the high-margin products that reliably make companies money invariably have the same taste, same texture, same industrialized quality every time you buy it. Regardless of season. In order for a company to build that “product” (sidenote: it’s very strange to call food a “product”) requires a good bit of fat and, oftentimes, a lot of sugar.

Not simply the sugar that is endemic to a particular food like corn. But added sugar, the stuff that makes food artificially sweeter. Again, the food industry is a competitive landscape. The competition is build primarily on taste. So if you’re not sweet enough, you won’t sell enough.

In fact, trends suggest that added sugar is the driving force in the food industry. From 1977 – 2010, consumption of added sugar increased 30%. We now eat 57 pounds of added sugar a year. That didn’t happen by mistake. The food industry, specifically in the realm of preprocessed food, goes in this direction because that’s what people buy.

We’re not blameless, you and I. We buy it because, from a behavioral and physiological standpoint, we want it. Physiologically, sweetness is one of the most durable taste sensations that we have. From children to the elderly, it stays with us. And we must acknowledge that, for many people, eating something sweet is one of the few times in a day that leads them to feel most engaged, most alive. To repeat: from a physiological and mental standpoint, many people feel most alive in the day-to-day when they eat something sweet.

If you’re not sweet enough, you won’t sell enough. 

So who is nudging who? As much as we might dislike the fact that the food industry sells a lot of sugary stuff, we are the ones who buy it. We are the ones who nudge them in that direction in the competitive marketplace. The food industry would sell just about anything so long as we show the willingness to buy it.

To demonstrate how we nudge them, take one of my favorite “products”: KIND bars. The makers have to go to great lengths to sell you a healthy snack. They can’t just stamp a box with the message, “THIS IS HEALTHY. BUY IT.” No, they have to first promise that you that it has “peanut butter + dark chocolate” and they have to cut a window in the box to show you the product. “See? We’re not kidding. It’s tasty. See for yourself.” Then they have to make sure that the product is wrapped in clear cellophane so you can witness all the lovely ribbons of chocolate laced around the bar.

KIND has to market this wonderful, healthy food as chocolate. Otherwise, they’ll never sell enough to survive.

“Please buy me! I’m tasty and, ancillary to that, I’m healthy too!” Photo from Mike Mozart

This is what it takes to survive in the food industry. This is what it takes to survive in the information industry, too.

Information Diet Junk Food

Attention is to the information industry as taste is the food industry. So “nudges” that help us consume better information must pull on the same levers that everyone else uses. If the internet were a grocery store, this would mean that the highly-prominent spaces within it should have the healthiest, most nutritious options available. The “endcap” displays should include wholesome food, not cookies.

This is effectively what Medium is trying to do. When Ev Williams talks about the effects of the attention economy, I think he and others are highlighting the ways in which content is providing more and more junk food. Because, when left to our own tired devices, that’s what we consume. To borrow his own quote from a fantastic NY Times article earlier this year,

“There’s a huge buffet,” he said. “If you eat whatever’s put in front of you, you’re not necessarily going to be making the best choices.”

My own tortured metaphor of the grocery store applies in the same way. We read it, the junk food content, because we want it. Most of us anyway.

So who is nudging who? As much as we might dislike the fact that the food industry sells a lot of sugary stuff, we are the ones who buy it.

So Medium battles against this urge by curating a fantastic network and setting its “endcaps” with the best content. It’s really working, I think, and I really enjoy it. Having never used social media (I never tried Facebook and I think I have tweeted once in my life), it is the sort of thing that gets close to what I imagine a regular, beneficial engagement with the internet should be.

But I was drawn to it by the fact that I write. In the grocery store parlance, I’m a food producer and this is a marketplace to offer my product, which I stylize on my publication page as “the fruits and vegetables of your information diet”.

That’s great and all but what about consumers? Not everyone wants to write but a lot of people on the internet sure do want to read. So how can those wonderful readers, each of every one of us, be nudged in a better direction?

Top Readers On Medium?

Here’s a new-to-me idea: what about top readers? People who are recognized as being the most well-read on the platform? As it stands now, Medium bestows the “Top Writer” status that very much nudges me to keep developing my content. I have no idea how I ended up with any “top writer” status but I’m thrilled by it. It’s a very powerful nudge.  

Why? As a writer, I seek two things in this order: improvement and validation. I never try to seek validation first but it sure is nice when I get it.  I wish I wasn’t dependent on it but I am. So “Top Writer” status is a steady piece of validation. Very satiating.  

“Top Reader” status could theoretically do the same. Again, this symbol would be for the consumers who are most well-read in particular categories. Or all categories. Whatever. The point here is that there can some element of a “nudge” that validates people’s information habits. It’s another version of a college degree, a symbol that recognizes the work we do to learn and grow.

The symbol is what matters. The symbol always matters. 

When at the grocery store, there is something very appealing about stacking your grocery cart with healthy food. It’s a symbol. And it makes me walk with my head held high, feeling good about myself. Conversely, I feel a wee bit of embarrassment every time I put a pack of Chips Ahoy cookies in my cart. I hope to never lose that feeling. I’ll still buy Chips Ahoy cookies but I like that the purchase is visible. Can information consumption be conspicuous in that same way?

Perhaps, with respect to privacy, something like “top reader” gives just enough of a glimpse without anyone looking over people’s shoulders. 

Top Writer status makes me feel like I’m doing something right. The nudge is the feedback, the encouragement and validation, that the title provides. We all crave that feedback just as surely as we crave sugar.

Maybe it’s an idea worth exploring? 

Combating Mindless Consumption

To return to this week’s book, Nudge, I offer the following from the authors.

Self-control is in conflict with temptation. Awareness is in conflict with mindless choosing.

Nudges that engage our awareness fight against mindless consumption (i.e., the autoplay on Youtube). Nudges that strengthen our self-control instinct, via encouragement or social proof, weaken temptation (i.e., calories reported on menus). Will these things always work? Of course not! That’s the point. Your decisions are still your decisions.

But nudges that validate, encourage, or at least acknowledge our good decisions make us feel better. I think it’s something we all welcome. I personally believe my town should host a celebratory parade every time I choose an apple instead of an apple pie.

But short of that, the power of this week’s book is two-fold. First, it helps us understand the power of behavioral economics and the ways in which it can be used to design choices for everyone’s benefit. Is it imperfect? Yes. Just like everything else. Second, it helps us see how marketplaces really work. Whether it’s the sugar industry or the attention industry, the economics are more psychological than we often care to remember. Many of the architects of the internet understand this now more than ever. Some are brave enough, like Ev Williams, to talk about it. 

For more on information diets, please consider the work of Tristan Harris and the great book by Nicholas Carr, The Shallows.