Guiding Healthier Choices in Schools: The Case of Choice Architecture vs. Choice Restrictions


Recall your childhood, or even think back to recent interactions with your child or children.  When they need to go to bed, how do you phrase it?  Do you say, “Johnny, it’s 7:30 so you need to stop what you are doing and get ready for bed.” Or, at 7:00 do you say, Johnny, you can choose to watch a TV program now and get ready for bed at 7:30, or just get ready for bed at 7:30.  Which would you prefer?”  No matter what, Johnny is supposed to get ready for bed at 7:30, but the context drastically differs between the situations, most likely resulting in starkly different outcomes.  In the first case, Johnny had no choice.  He just had to go to get ready for bed at 7:30.  In the second case, Johnny had a choice, though he still had to get ready for bed at 7:30.  

Consider a similar scenario, but in the context of food choice.  In a lunch experiment involving middle school students attending a 4H program at Cornell University, 120 students were served carrots for lunch, while another 120 were given the option to choose either carrots or celery (103 selected carrots).  Of the 120 students required to take carrots, 69% ate them, compared to 91% who ate their carrots when they chose either carrots or celery.[1] Simply providing a choice drastically increased the percentage of students who ate their carrots, and reduced vegetable waste.

The two scenarios described above are examples of choice architecture vs. choice restriction.  Choice architecture is designing a choice to guide individuals to a specific action.  Both children and adults do not like to feel forced into actions, but there are some behaviors that are necessary for their proper health, and for children, proper development and academic performance.  Thus, a skilled choice architect will design situations to encourage specific behaviors while preserving choices. 

This is in contrast to restricting options in an attempt to force specific behavior.  Refer back to the bedtime scenario.  When children are told they have to stop their activities and get ready for bed, resistance is most likely to occur.  Every parent using this tactic will express the frustration of “ill-behaved” children that never want to go to bed.  In the summer camp, students who were forced to take carrots wasted more of them.

In school lunchrooms, food service directors and cafeteria staff are the choice architects and can have significant impacts on what children take and consume.  Instead of removing the childhood favorites from the lunch line, why not place them just out of reach so children have to ask for them.  In addition, make the healthier options more convenient, attractive, and socially appealing.  Research indicates that simply putting fruit in an attractive bowl, giving vegetables attractive names, and encouraging students to take fruit or vegetables not only increases the chances that they will take a healthier meal, but also increases the amount of fruits and vegetables they eat.[2]  Better yet, these tactics cost no more that $50 (a one time cost) and the changes can be made in one afternoon.  Thus, choice architecture not only leads students to make more healthful lunch decisions, there is very little associated cost, a win-win for everyone involved.


Drew Hanks, Cornell Center for Behavioral Economics in Child Nutrition Programs


[1] Just, David R. and Brian Wansink. 2009. “Smarter Lunchrooms: Using Behavioral Economics to Improve Meal Selection.” Choices 24(3):1-7.

[2] Hanks, Andrew S., David R. Just, and Brian Wansink. 2013. “Smarter Lunchrooms Can Address New School Lunchroom Guidelines and Childhood Obesity.” Journal of Pediatrics 162(4): 867-869.