Yet another in the current series of popular books with one-word titles, Nudge, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein contends that we should apply recent research about human behavior to present choices to people in a way that will nudge them into choosing well. They call this “libertarian paternalism.” Libertarian in that they believe people should be free to choose. Paternalism in that they believe they know what is best for most people. Sounding a little defensive about the paternalism aspect, they argue that if you’re in a position where you’re asking people to choose, you have a moral obligation to nudge them toward the choice you believe to be in their best interest.
I was most interested in the first part, which discusses how most people make choices. After dividing the way we think into the Automatic System and the Reflective System, the book dives into how the Automatic System leads us to do things against the judgments of the Reflective System.
There are many bias that affect how we make automatic choices. We make guesses starting with what we know, tend to stick with what we have, and estimate risks based on the events we hear about. We judge how likely it is something belongs to a category based on stereotypes. Everyone thinks they’re above average. The prospect of a loss is more painful than the prospect of a gain is pleasurable. Thus, questions framed in losses are more effective nudges.
It’s easier to resist temptation when we are cool and collected, than upset and emotional. The good news is that most people are aware enough of their weaknesses to set alarms and create systems to work around them. Still, if you put food in front of people, they will eat it without thinking until it’s gone.
People tend to do or not do things according to what they think others are doing. But if you tell them they are doing better than average, they will tend to slack off and go back to average. It’s more effective to simply tell them they are doing the right thing. People can also be nudged to act if you ask them if they intend to do something, from flossing, voting, or buying a new car.
The idea of a nudge really comes into play when we need to make difficult, infrequent choices where any payoff is delayed. That means you don’t get good feedback and you can’t even be sure you will like it. Such choices range from choosing a career to eating at a new restaurant. The default offered in these fraught situations is critical, as a default implies the choice that is normal or recommended. Every time you opt out of a mailing list, you see how defaults are exploited.
The majority of the book is taken up with proposals and justifications for the best defaults in variety of hot-button policy domains: saving for retirement, health care, school choice, and more. Some of the sections seem to be more about prescriptions than choices. While it can be tempting to argue or agree with them, it’s interesting to see how they apply their principles to constructing ways to let people choose the right choice.