"Blink." "Sway." "Flip." Such snappy, one-word titles purport to reveal the hidden dimensions of human behaviour by both informing and entertaining the reader. "Nudge" certainly falls into this genre but it goes a step further, making a strong case for more enlightened social and economic policies.
We see ourselves as rational creatures, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler point out, but four decades of research show that our choices tend towards the unrealistically optimistic, the status quo and thoughtless conformity. Citing what they call "the emerging science of choice," the authors contend that the framing and presentation of public choices determines the decisions we make: we eat more from large plates, care twice as much about losing money as gaining it and agonize about rare events like plane crashes instead of common ones like auto accidents.
"Choice architecture" can thus guide, or "nudge," people toward making better choices. A nudge, Sunstein and Thaler write, "alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives...Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not." The authors dedicate much of the book to practical examples of nudges, detailing how to take advantage of people's tendency to expend a minimum of effort and how to make use of subtle social influences. Many of these examples both persuade and entertain; they describe, for instance, how etching a small black fly in a urinal gives men something to aim at, thus reducing reducing spillage by 80 percent.
Sunstein and Thaler then sway towards the political, an important and worthwhile move but one that becomes tedious and repetitive as the book progresses. They acknowledge that some might see nudges as an infringement on their liberties but, ultimately, they assert, context-free choice does not exist. An approach that both preserves freedom of choice and guides people to make educated, thoughtful decisions could allow people to make their lives healthier, happier and longer. The deliberate oxymoron, "libertarian paternalism," which in itself will cause some eyes to glaze over, describes this philosophy. "Private and public choice architects are not merely trying to track or to implement people’s anticipated choices," the authors conclude. "Rather, they are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge."