Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

For fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, a revelatory new look at how we make decisions

A New York Times bestseller
An Economist Best Book of the Year
A Financial Times Best Book of the Year

Nudge is about choices—how we make them and how we can make better ones. Drawing on decades of research in the fields of behavioral science and economics, authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein offer a new perspective on preventing the countless mistakes we make—ill-advised personal investments, consumption of unhealthy foods, neglect of our natural resources—and show us how sensible “choice architecture” can successfully nudge people toward the best decisions. In the tradition of The Tipping Point and Freakonomics, Nudge is straightforward, informative, and entertaining—a must-read for anyone interested in our individual and collective well-being.


Questions for Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Amazon.com: What do you mean by “nudge” and why do people sometimes need to be nudged?

Thaler and Sunstein: By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it’s time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.

Amazon.com: What are some of the situations where nudges can make a difference?

Thaler and Sunstein: Well, to name just a few: better investments for everyone, more savings for retirement, less obesity, more charitable giving, a cleaner planet, and an improved educational system. We could easily make people both wealthier and healthier by devising friendlier choice environments, or architectures.

Amazon.com: Can you describe a nudge that is now being used successfully?

Thaler and Sunstein: One example is the Save More Tomorrow program. Firms offer employees who are not saving very much the option of joining a program in which their saving rates are automatically increased whenever the employee gets a raise. This plan has more than tripled saving rates in some firms, and is now offered by thousands of employers.

Amazon.com: What is “choice architecture” and how does it affect the average person’s daily life?

Thaler and Sunstein: Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. Suppose you go into a cafeteria. What do you see first, the salad bar or the burger and fries stand? Where’s the chocolate cake? Where’s the fruit? These features influence what you will choose to eat, so the person who decides how to display the food is the choice architect of the cafeteria. All of our choices are similarly influenced by choice architects. The architecture includes rules deciding what happens if you do nothing; what’s said and what isn’t said; what you see and what you don’t. Doctors, employers, credit card companies, banks, and even parents are choice architects.

We show that by carefully designing the choice architecture, we can make dramatic improvements in the decisions people make, without forcing anyone to do anything. For example, we can help people save more and invest better in their retirement plans, make better choices when picking a mortgage, save on their utility bills, and improve the environment simultaneously. Good choice architecture can even improve the process of getting a divorce–or (a happier thought) getting married in the first place!

Amazon.com: You are very adamant about allowing people to have choice, even though they may make bad ones. But if we know what’s best for people, why just nudge? Why not push and shove?

Thaler and Sunstein: Those who are in position to shape our decisions can overreach or make mistakes, and freedom of choice is a safeguard to that. One of our goals in writing this book is to show that it is possible to help people make better choices and retain or even expand freedom. If people have their own ideas about what to eat and drink, and how to invest their money, they should be allowed to do so.

Amazon.com: You point out that most people spend more time picking out a new TV or audio device than they do choosing their health plan or retirement investment strategy? Why do most people go into what you describe as “auto-pilot mode” even when it comes to making important long-term decisions?

Thaler and Sunstein: There are three factors at work. First, people procrastinate, especially when a decision is hard. And having too many choices can create an information overload. Research shows that in many situations people will just delay making a choice altogether if they can (say by not joining their 401(k) plan), or will just take the easy way out by selecting the default option, or the one that is being suggested by a pushy salesman.

Second, our world has gotten a lot more complicated. Thirty years ago most mortgages were of the 30-year fixed-rate variety making them easy to compare. Now mortgages come in dozens of varieties, and even finance professors can have trouble figuring out which one is best. Since the cost of figuring out which one is best is so hard, an unscrupulous mortgage broker can easily push unsophisticated borrowers into taking a bad deal.

Third, although one might think that high stakes would make people pay more attention, instead it can just make people tense. In such situations some people react by curling into a ball and thinking, well, err, I’ll do something else instead, like stare at the television or think about baseball. So, much of our lives is lived on auto-pilot, just because weighing complicated decisions is not so easy, and sometimes not so fun. Nudges can help ensure that even when we’re on auto-pilot, or unwilling to make a hard choice, the deck is stacked in our favor.

Amazon.com: Are we humans just poorly adapted for making sound judgments in an increasingly fast-paced and complex world? What can we do to position ourselves better?

Thaler and Sunstein: The human brain is amazing, but it evolved for specific purposes, such as avoiding predators and finding food. Those purposes do not include choosing good credit card plans, reducing harmful pollution, avoiding fatty foods, and planning for a decade or so from now. Fortunately, a few nudges can help a lot. A few small hints: Sign up for automatic payment plans so you don’t pay late fees. Stop using your credit cards until you can pay them off on time every month. Make sure you’re enrolled in a 401(k) plan. A final hint: Read Nudge.


Review
“How often do you read a book that is both important and amusing, both practical and deep? This gem of a book presents the best idea that has come out of behavioral economics. It is a must-read for anyone who wants to see both our minds and our society working better. It will improve your decisions and it will make the world a better place.”-Daniel Kahneman, Princeton University, Nobel Laureate in Economics (Daniel Kahneman )

“In this utterly brilliant book, Thaler and Sunstein teach us how to steer people toward better health, sounder investments, and cleaner environments without depriving them of their inalienable right to make a mess of things if they want to. The inventor of behavioral economics and one of the nation”s best legal minds have produced the manifesto for a revolution in practice and policy. Nudge won”t nudge you-it will knock you off your feet.”-Daniel Gilbert, professor of psychology, Harvard University, Author of Stumbling on Happiness (Daniel Gilbert )

“This is an engaging, informative, and thoroughly delightful book. Thaler and Sunstein provide important lessons for structuring social policies so that people still have complete choice over their own actions, but are gently nudged to do what is in their own best interests. Well done.”-Don Norman, Northwestern University, Author of The Design of Everyday Things and The Design of Future Things (Don Norman )

“This book is terrific. It will change the way you think, not only about the world around you and some of its bigger problems, but also about yourself.”-Michael Lewis, author of The Blind Side: Evolution of a Game and Liar”s Poker (Michael Lewis )

“Two University of Chicago professors sketch a new approach to public policy that takes into account the odd realities of human behavior, like the deep and unthinking tendency to conform. Even in areas-like energy consumption-where conformity is irrelevant. Thaler has documented the ways people act illogically.”-Barbara Kiviat, Time (Barbara Kiviat Time )

“Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein”s Nudge is a wonderful book: more fun than any important book has a right to be-and yet it is truly both.”-Roger Lowenstein, author of When Genius Failed (Roger Lowenstein )

“A manifesto for using the recent behavioral research to help people, as well as government agencies, companies and charities, make better decisions.”-David Leonhardt, The New York Times Magazine (David Leonhardt The New York Times Magazine )

“I love this book. It is one of the few books I”ve read recently that fundamentally changes the way I think about the world. Just as surprising, it is fun to read, drawing on examples as far afield as urinals, 401(k) plans, organ donations, and marriage. Academics aren”t supposed to be able to write this well.”-Steven Levitt, Alvin Baum Professor of Economics, University of Chicago Graduate School of Business and co-author of Freakonomics: A Rogue Economist Explores the Hidden Side of Everything (Steven Levitt )

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3 Comments so far »

  1. D. Stuart "Researcher at Kudos" said,

    Wrote on February 28, 2013 @ 10:01 am

    339 of 403 people found the following review helpful
    5.0 out of 5 stars
    The elephant in the room., March 23, 2008
    By 

    Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein are both professors at the University of Chicago and where the Chicago school was once famous for the Milton Friedman doctrine of free markets (look where they’ve got us today!) Thaler and now his Law professor friend Cass Sunstein have swung the pendulum the other way.

    Here in Nudge, they argue that totally free markets can lead to disasters precisely because human individuals are not actually very good decision-makers. As Behavioural Economists (Kahneman & Tversky Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases- who credited Thaler as being a key inspiration – and Dan Ariely, whose Predictably Irrational: The Hidden Forces That Shape Our Decisions has become a best seller) argue, we are riddled with little psychological tics in our decision-making processes. We buy things, then suffer remorse. We get confused by choices and often make no choice at all.

    But where Ariely keeps his discourse in the world of the day to day, Thaler and Sunstein develop an argument that is political – and is bound to cause heated debate. What they argue is that, in the face of our decision-making weaknesses, Governments and Businesses can help “nudge” us in the right direction. The elephant in the room can be benign.

    They call their viewpoint `libertarian paternalism’ and what they argue is that it would be a good thing for some gentle nudging of the citizenry in the right direction. As Thaler said recently in the New York Times: “In light of human limitations, Cass Sunstein and I argue for policies that we call libertarian paternalism. Although the phrase sounds like an oxymoron, we contend that it is often possible to design policies, in both the public and private sector, that make people better off — as judged by themselves — without coercion. We oppose bans; instead, we favor nudges.”

    How does a Government do this without imposing laws and edicts. A primary argument is that defaults can be set that counter the tendency by humans to procrastinate or make no decision. One example is the Save More Tomorrow Plan which Thaler developed back in 1996 as an employer sponsored retirement plan for employees. Instead of presenting the details and asking employees to consciously sign-up to increase their savings each time they got a pay rise, the plan presented the details and asked employees to basically check the box if they wished in future to automatically increase their savings as their pay went up. To pre-commit. Such schemes have proved very successful, yet they offer the same free choice, though with a different default.

    As Thaler argues: “Since it is often impossible for private and public institutions to avoid picking some option as the default, why not pick one that is helpful?”

    Another form of nudge might be the act of disclosure. Thaler & Sunstein argue, for example that credit card companies should issue annual statements that tell us how much we’ve spent this year on late fees and interest. Again: we have the complete freedom to use cards as we want, but the additional information may help us reframe our own spending strategies. Or how about stickers on new cars that show how much gasoline each vehicle would burn over the next 5 years under typical usage. Hold that Hummer.

    These are examples of what the authors call helpful “choice architecture.” Nice phrase. The architecture puts our options on more clear display.

    I must say, I like the thinking here, and it gives credence to agent-based simulation modelling I’ve carried out whereby small changes can lead to big effects.

    But this volume is about more than modelling and mere theory. One cannot help but think that the book has been timed to coincide with the meltdown of the present economy. The free market, the totally free market, the authors implicitly argue, needs quite a nudge itself. Rather than seeking highly regulated solutions, the better response might simply be a series of tweaks to the choice architecture that influences our spending, saving, health care and borrowing patterns.

    The authors present a clear argument and no doubt it will cause heated and lively debate. This book has landed like a rock, right into the centre of the current and somewhat stagnant economic pond. It will definitely cause ripples. Well worth reading.

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  2. Lena said,

    Wrote on February 28, 2013 @ 10:19 am

    113 of 136 people found the following review helpful
    3.0 out of 5 stars
    Interesting premise, poor implementation, June 30, 2009
    By 
    Lena (Toronto, Canada) –

    This review is from: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Paperback)

    I liked the beginning of the book, but it became repetitive and boring after first three chapters. It could be due to the fact that I generally agree with the major premise of the book: people should be “nudged” to make a decision that will make them better off. And yes, the nudge should be transparent and not synonym to manipulating people’s minds. And yes, the government has my permission to nudge me in the right direction; if as a result I will make a decision (for example) to exercise more and eat less junk food.
    (As a side note, I will be happy to have such a smart government. Or well, this could be an issue. But this is a subject for another book).
    I got it, and I don’t need three chapters to convince me. Am I alone in this?

    I was much more interested in why and how our brain works to react to the “nudges” (“popular psychology” side that was almost non-existent), than in authors’ rebukes to the opponents of “libertarian paternalism” – the political implementation of their theory. The other thing that annoyed me was the authors’ attempt to be funny and coin terms, names and definitions that were supposed to make the book readable. Instead, it got annoying after the third appearance of the term “libertarian paternalism” and after the fifth time I saw the term “Econ” (used for infamously rational person from economics textbooks).

    I had an opportunity to listen to Thaler’s presentation on this subject and it was lively and interesting. He is a brilliant speaker with many great ideas; unfortunately, it didn’t translate into the brilliant writing.

    I would still recommend the book for the ideas of “nudges” in different areas (personal finance, energy conservation, marketing, politics and everyday life). However, it fells short on the inspirational side. You shouldn’t be able to put this book down. But you are.

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  3. Meadowbank said,

    Wrote on February 28, 2013 @ 11:09 am

    54 of 64 people found the following review helpful
    1.0 out of 5 stars
    A little of everything, and therefore unfortunately not much of anything, November 3, 2010
    By 

    Amazon Verified Purchase(What’s this?)

    This book covers a lot of ground, and none of it is covered with any rigour or depth.

    There are occasional interesting pieces of insight – for example, if you want people to reduce their energy usage, it may be enough to tell above-average users that they are in that category – below-average users, not so much, they may then use more energy – but you can counter this by a nice smiley emoticon next to where that fact is displayed (implying they’re doing a great thing by using less energy) and their usage will stay low.

    The problem is, to gain these nice pieces of insight, I had to dig through much much more content that was not covered well.

    Here are some of the the things you’ll find in this book

    - A superficial review of psychology research concerning a few factors on how people make choices (For example, too many choices lead to overwhelm and bad decisions. Another example – people can be influenced to make a bad decision if others around them are making bad decisions).
    - A explanation of how people can be helped to make good choices, for example with food, by where food is placed on store shelves (e.g. at eye level vs not).
    - Many many pages of excruciating detail on why choices of medical insurance plans can be a complex and painful process. Ditto for how the complexity of investing can lead to bad investment choices. None of this is original.
    - A fairly basic solution proposed to complexity of choices – regulations to require providers to provide information on the implications of their choices – for example, lenders should provide documentation of the implications of a given choice of loan – what you’d end up paying over time (not just at the time of initial “special deals”) and what the worst case scenario would imply in terms of costs for you. This information, the authors advise, should not be buried in the fine print. Very very obvious stuff.
    - A chapter on making organ donation to be opt-out instead of opt-in. One of the better chapters, with some evidence given of it having worked in some countries. But could have been dealt with in a few paragraphs, did not need to be stretched to a chapter (admittedly a short chapter).
    - Some attempts at philosophical argument for why governments should be allowed to “nudge” people to better choices, but not done to any depth or rigour.
    - Several side comments that did not provide any new insights – for example, that the principle of what actions are being taken by those in authority should be transparent might have prevented the atrocities at Abu Ghraib. Again, nothing original here.
    - Several trite pieces of advice about how publicising a commitment you’ve made (e.g. to lose weight) and setting up disincentives for failure (e.g. a certain amount of money to be donated to a cause you disapprove of) can help you achieve the goal. Again, nothing new here.
    - A more reasonable chapter on privatizing marriage – the goal being to allow religious groups to endorse marriages based on their convictions, but for all partnerships to be granted equal legal status. Not really related to the concept of nudging though, and drawn out and padded with sociological thoughts on what function marriage has historically served, which does not seem to be the authors’ field of expertise.
    - Random pieces of advice such as permitting motorcycle riders to not wear helmets if they take extra training and show evidence of medical insurance. If I could be sure that they are also paying higher insurance premiums I might not be too annoyed at that one, but the authors don’t venture into this area of discussion so again I felt their treatment of this topic was incomplete.
    - A recommendation that the Social Security Administration assist those claiming benefits by making more clear at what age you should start collecting the benefits if you want to obtain the maximum amount of money by it (allowing for things like, maybe I’m ok with less money if I want it sooner). Having a payer assist a payee in taking maximum advantage is nice and altruistic, good luck with getting that happening.

    Overall it felt like the authors had a collection of unrelated instances of advice that they were trying to force to fit the concept of a “nudge”.

    If you are interested in this kind of content from a psychology viewpoint, read Freakonomics (Dubner and Levitt), Predictably Irrational (Ariely), Influence (Cialdini), Tipping Point (Gladwell). For the investment advice and bits of self-help associated with that, David Bach does a better job in his various books.

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