Monday, August 18, 2008

'nudge' tops short action-verb econ books

I second-guessed my purchase of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, almost the minute I received my Amazon e-mail receipt -- I had already read Malcom Gladwell's Blink, and heard about the literary disaster that is Sway, and yet there I was, reading Nudge's introduction about the arrangement of cafeteria food.

I'm glad I did. While Thaler and Sunstein are happy to revel in the small ways that their insights into "choice architecture" can lead to better or worse choices, they also lay out their political principles and detail their impact on current policy debates (e.g., Social Security, Medicare Part D, Education.) To top it all off, they begin the book with a treatment of our cognitive failings, distinguishing between our automatic and reflective processing systems (what's not to love!), leading right into their arguments for how to help the automatic majority overcome their cognitive frailty without infringing the reflective minority's ability to choose.

So what is choice architecture? Well, are you choosing out of ten choices, or 100? Are you automatically enrolled in one choice or another if you don't make an active decision? How is that default set? How is information presented to you to about the available choices? All of these questions speak to choice architecture -- in other words, the arrangement and organization of choices -- which has a nasty habit of leading individuals to choices that they themselves would not find optimal (see don't be bob bias, the mind and morality).

Furthermore, "choice architecture, both good and bad, is pervasive and unavoidable." This point is essential to Thaler and Sunstein's argument if you are a libertarian. Ignoring choice architecture won't make it go away, it will only make it more likely that the choices favored by choice architecture are more likely to be poor. For instance, you can make the default option for new employees enrolled at 5% in a 401(k) with an option to opt-out, or you can make the default option to not be enrolled (as is often the case). If you stick with the current default, many who would otherwise enjoy being enrolled will not do so because of the choice architecture. Thaler and Sunstein recommend acknowledging the importance of choice architecture and deliberately deciding on its design.

Thaler and Sunstein aren't interested in helping individuals pick out their dry cleaners; as the authors note, if a dry cleaner performs poorly, it is fairly easy for individuals to make a better decision the next team.

Rather, "people are most likely to need nudges for decision that are difficult, complex, and infrequent, and when they have poor feedback and few opportunities for learning."

Individuals are primed to make poor choices for Medicare Part D, Mortgages, and retirement investments. Thaler and Sunstein don't advocate for eliminating choices because of these problems. On the contrary, their final chapter points to the infamous "third way" -- separate from both the command-and-control left and the single-minded 'choice' monkeys of the libertarian right.

There needn't be a war between 'no choice' and 'unlimited choice.' Thaler and Sunstein spend around 250 pages explaining that this is indeed a false choice. Like myself, they side with the libertarians when it comes to the importance of choice, and side with the left when it comes to the failure of 'choice' to solve all problems. Choice is important. Coercion isn't necessary. Focus on the choice architecture.

Oh, and I have to add. As someone who has long supported responding to the gay marriage debate by taking government out of the marriage business (perhaps keeping a civil union or partnership business) and leaving it to independent churches, I was very happy to see Thaler and Sunstein put forth such an argument in Nudge.

Whether you are on the left or right, worth a read!

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