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Review: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

October 17, 2012

Nudge coverTitle: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness
Author: Thaler, Richard and Sunstein, Cass
Length: 312 pages
Genre: Non-Fiction, Economics, Psychology
Publisher / Year: Penguin Books / 2008
Source: Unsure… purchased from some unknown source prior to 2010
Rating: 4/5
Why I Read It: I am terrible at decision-making. This seemed a useful aid.
Date Read: 08/08/12

Do you believe we make every decision on our own? How many decisions do you make a day that you feel unqualified to make? And do you think you ever show any unconscious biases in your decision-making? In this book Thaler and Sunstein lay out the ways in which the options we are given and the way in which they are presented unconsciously sway our decisions. They also lay out the ways in which choice architects could use this knowledge to aid rather than leaving us all to our own devices.

Thaler and Sunstein call their concept libertarian paternalism – what they mean by this is that every option is still possible (i.e. junk food isn’t banned), but that the person designing the choice layout uses their knowledge to help people (i.e. the junk food is on a back shelf and healthier options are at the cash register) via small nudges. In this way the consider themselves libertarians because they do not want to in any way limit options, but paternalistic by using our biases in a good way.

Other examples include things like automatically opting in to the work savings plan, or the best health plan, or so on rather than having to make a conscious decision which could get forgotten. Another is simply to keep in mind wording – if a form tells you what percentage of people are organ donors, for example, you are more likely to sign up than if it only mentions the need and how many people could be donors.

I did have one issue with the book, and that was in the section in which they talk about applying libertarian paternalism and nudges to other areas such as schooling, medicine, and marriage. While I completely agree with the authors that marriage as a state affair isn’t really useful for anyone and has lost it’s purpose, I disagree that marriage as a personal decision and civil unions only as a state recognized benefit union would solve the gay marriage dispute. It’s not simply a matter of politics, but of human rights. The same wouldn’t be put forward today for those ministers who refuse to marry interracial couples, surely? Right? The bible has many odd things in it, most of which are ignored selectively.

One thing I did like was the discussion of ethics and how nudges by corporations and executives (who stand to gain financially) are not necessarily better than nudges by government officials. While many would argue that the government should make no decisions and have no role, clearly that isn’t an actual option.

Really interesting book that I recommend to anyone interested in daily life, the choices we make, how to improve the offering of choices, and more.

18 Comments leave one →
  1. October 17, 2012 11:39 am

    That sounds really interesting. I think it would make a good reading companion for a book that I finished recently which also examines the question of choice in the context of decision-making (The Power of Habit, which had a little more of a business-slant than this, by the sounds of it). Normally something with an ‘economics’ tag has me shrinking from it, but not this one; I’m adding it to my list!

    • October 18, 2012 8:43 pm

      Oh that’s a really interesting one too BIP! I did think they went well together :)

  2. October 17, 2012 1:21 pm

    Totally agree with everything in your one issue paragraph! :–)

  3. zibilee permalink
    October 17, 2012 9:23 pm

    What an interesting thing to think about! I had never even thought about how suggestion and unconscious decision making are so closely related, or how this can all be changed to fit our needs. I do agree with your point about marriage and relationships though, that should definitely be left open for people to decide for themselves. Very intriguing review Amy!

    • October 18, 2012 8:44 pm

      I hadn’t thought about it before this either Zibilee :)

  4. October 18, 2012 8:31 am

    Very interesting premise, and I absolutely love the cover.

  5. October 18, 2012 7:04 pm

    the subject is something I’ve talked about, informally, before. It’s good that we know these so we can know what to do at any point. perhaps we can become more conscious in our choice-making and try to assess if we are being nudged into a given direction.

  6. October 21, 2012 3:42 am

    Great balanced and short review. There’s one issue though. The “unconscious” is overplayed a bit. Lots of nudges work well within the boundaries of our awareness. Think for instance of the fly-in-the-urinal example in the beginning of the book. This reportedly reduces spillage by 80%, but not by working solely with our automatic behaviors. Rather, it attracts attention and subsequently decision making. The same goes for the Save-more-tomorrow program discussed in the book. (I’ve discussed these ideas several times on

    • October 27, 2012 9:04 am

      Yes, that makes a lot of sense inudgeyou, I can imagine we could consciously be nudged as well. Thanks for the link.

  7. Brian Joseph permalink
    October 21, 2012 9:46 am

    I find that these books that get at how we think and act as well as books theorizing on the nature of society to be fascinating.

    When I think about it, I believe that these “nudges” have an enormous impact upon people and society.

  8. October 29, 2012 9:24 pm

    This sounds like a thought-provoking book. Books like this, that observe everyday life and try to draw out some conclusions, fascinate me. I’ll look for this one!

  9. November 1, 2012 11:53 am

    I’ve been a big believer in critical thinking to make decisions which means I cast a very critical eye on groupthink and following the herd.

    I’m the first one to admit I make very few decisions in a bubble. I’ll consult authorities, experts and recognized reference materials to come up with the best decision possible in any given situation.

    This is a book I can definitely appreciate.

  10. November 1, 2012 5:05 pm

    “While many would argue that the government should make no decisions and have no role, clearly that isn’t an actual option.” Amen! Esp. after Sandy. We didn’t exactly see Goldman Sachs rushing to provide aid…

  11. November 6, 2012 2:48 pm

    Kim at Sophisticated Dork reviewed a similar themed book for how political campaigners try to influence our votes – maybe a more microstudy.

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