Stable systems are not necessarily healthy ones. Many ostensibly stable systems in organisational, commercial, and civic contexts are instead characterized by “zero-sum” dynamics, in which supply is assumed to be scarce rather than abundant, forcing participants to compete over a finite set of narrowly defined valued assets rather than attempting to satisfy their deeper and more pluralistic preferences. This state of scarcity and competition has significant influences on how choices are prioritized and made, suggesting that insights from behavioural science — which provides a perspective on how people consider options and make trade-offs when deliberating and making decisions under uncertainty — can contribute to understanding behaviours in zero-sum situations. Further, it indicates that combining behavioural insights with an understanding of system-level functions to illuminate strategies for reframing value definition and exchange can reframe zero-sum conditions into “positive-sum” ones.
However, where behavioural design typically functions at the immediate moment and discrete unit of decision-making in the form of “choice architecture,” achieving positive-sum outcomes may demand paying greater attention to what we might call choice infrastructure or the ways in which system conditions provide the underlying plumbing for determining and exchanging value. In addition, encouraging positive-sum outcomes will also benefit from understanding how individuals’ specific and non-generic stances on value inform their personal choice postures or inclinations and predispositions toward what is valuable to them.
This paper proposes that considering how behavioural insights inform choice infrastructure and choice posture can augment current systems and behavioural design approaches for achieving more equitable, positive-sum solutions to system challenges. It then examines Chicago’s transportation policy related to fines and fees through these lenses to demonstrate how they might be applied to real-life challenges.
Keywords: systemic design, behavioural design, choice infrastructure, choice posture, zero-sum, positive-sum