Review: Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein
Title: 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
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.