Review of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Note: This review is by my husband Jim.

As you struggle with New Year’s resolutions, you might want to consider consulting this book for guidance.

At the time this book was published, both authors were professors at the University of Chicago. Sunstein has since moved down [sic] the intellectual ladder to Harvard. [Disclosure: this reviewer’s alma mater is of course The University of Chicago.] Both Thaler and Sunstein are firm believers in the efficacy of market forces, but they recognize that human beings often make choices that are bad for themselves (for a variety of reasons) in the long run. Both authors would like to limit government coercion in peoples’ lives, but they recognize that by providing good incentives, it can channel behavior in directions that will increase overall happiness and economic efficiency.

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In the book, they articulate a philosophy they characterize as libertarian paternalism. It is libertarian in that it preserves individual free choice to the maximum extent advisable: as they say, “people should be free to do what they like-and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they want to do so.” On the other hand, it is paternal in that it directs (but does not coerce) behavior in situations where many people have been known to make choices that do not make their lives “longer, healthier, and better.” Hence the term and the title, Nudge (as opposed to coerce or compel).

The authors develop concepts that were originally articulated over the years by Daniel Kahneman, Amos Tversky, and others concerning ways in which humans make poor choices. A more thorough analysis of these same concepts can be found in Kahneman’s 2011 book, Thinking, Fast and Slow. Thaler and Sunstein show that wise, non-coercive policies can be devised taking these human failings into consideration.

HOMER

The result is a fascinating, lively account of how governments could help make life longer, healthier, and better through “choice architecture,” their term for a method of influencing decisions by how choices are presented. A simple example of choice architecture through a “nudge” is placing healthy foods in a school cafeteria at eye level, while putting less healthy junk food in harder to reach places. Individuals are not prevented from eating whatever they want, but arranging food choices in that way tends to decrease consumption of junk food and increase consumption of healthier foods. (More mundanely, they cite the technique of “hiding the cashew nuts.”) Yet another example they adduce is that of “Clocky,” an alarm clock that runs away and hides if you don’t get out of bed on time.

Evaluation: “The Economist” rated Nudge the “Best Book of the Year.” Not all the critics have been so kind. I found that I raced through the first half, often laughing out loud, but the last half (consisting of numerous policy recommendations) sometimes became a bit heavy going. Nonetheless, I highly recommend this book, especially for legislators and other policy makers.

Rating: 4/5

First published in the U.S. by Yale University Press, 2008; Revised and updated edition published by Penguin Books, 2009

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4 Responses

  1. So happy Jim read this for me. It sounds interesting but I know I’d never read it.

  2. If the second half is heavy going for Jim, I can’t imagine how difficult it would be for me.

  3. Clever premise. I wonder if I could learn something here that would allow me to make better eating choices…

  4. Homer looks like he knows what’s best ;)

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