Monday, June 6, 2022

Guiding People to Better Decisions: Lessons from Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

Safetymatters reports on organizational culture, the values and beliefs that underlie an organization’s essential activities.  One such activity is decision-making (DM) and we’ve said an organization’s DM processes should be robust and replicable.  DM must incorporate the organization’s priorities, allocate its resources, and handle the inevitable goal conflicts which arise.

In a related area, we’ve written about the biases that humans exhibit in their personal DM processes, described most notably in the work by Daniel Kahneman.*  These biases affect decisions people make, or contribute to, on behalf of their organizations, and personal decisions that only impact the decision maker himself.

Thaler and Sunstein also recognize that humans are not perfectly rational decision makers (citing Kahneman’s work, among others) and seek to help people make better decisions based on insights from behavioral science and applied economics.  Nudge** focuses on the presentation of decision situations and alternatives to decision makers on public and private sector websites.  It describes the nitty-gritty of identifying, analyzing, and manipulating decision factors, i.e., the architecture of choice. 

The authors examine the choice architecture for a specific class of decisions: where groups of people make individual choices from a set of alternatives.  Choice architecture consists of curation and navigation tools.  Curation refers to the set of alternatives presented to the decision maker.  Navigation tools sound neutral but small details can have a significant effect on a decider’s behavior. 

The authors discuss many examples including choosing a healthcare or retirement plan, deciding whether or not to become an organ donor, addressing climate change, and selecting a home mortgage.  In each case, they describe different ways of presenting the decision choices, and their suggestions for an optimal approach.  Their recommendations are guided by their philosophy of “libertarian paternalism” which means decision makers should be free to choose, but should be guided to an alternative that would maximize the decider’s utility, as defined by the decision maker herself.

Nudge concentrates on which alternatives are presented to a decider and how they are presented.  Is the decision maker asked to opt-in or opt-out with respect to major decisions?  Are many alternatives presented or a subset of possibilities?  A major problem in the real world is that people can have difficulty in seeing how choices will end up affecting their lives.  What is the default if the decision maker doesn’t make a selection?  This is important: default options are powerful nudges; they can be welfare enhancing for the decider or self-serving for the organization.  Ideally, default choices should be “consistent with choices people would make if they all the relevant information, were not subject to behavioral biases, and had the time to make a thoughtful choice.” (p. 261)

Another real world problem is that much choice architecture is bogged down with sludge - the inefficiency in the choice system – including barriers, red tape, delays, opaque costs, and hidden or difficult to use off-ramps (e.g., finding the path to unsubscribe from a publication).

The authors show how private entities like social media companies and employers, and public ones like the DMV, present decision situations to users.  Some entities have the decider’s welfare and benefit in mind, others are more concerned with their own power and profits.  It’s no secret that markets give companies an incentive to exploit our DM frailties to increase profits.  The authors explicitly do not support the policy of “presumed consent” embedded in many choice situations where the designer has assumed a desirable answer and is trying to get more deciders to end up there. 

The authors’ view is their work has led to many governments around the world establishing “nudge” departments to identify better routes for implementing social policies.

Our Perspective

First, the authors have a construct that is totally consistent with our notion of a system.  A true teleological system includes a designer (the authors), a client (the individual deciders), and a measure of performance (utility as experienced by the decider).  Because we all agree, we’ll give them an A+ for conceptual clarity and completeness.

Second, they pull back the curtain to reveal the deliberate (or haphazard) architecture that underlies many of our on-line experiences where we are asked or required to interact with the source entities.  The authors make clear how often we are being prodded and nudged.  Even the most ostensibly benign sites can suggest what we should be doing through their selection of default choices.  (In fairness, some site operators, like one’s employer, are themselves under the gun to provide complete data to government agencies or insurance companies.  They simply can’t wait indefinitely for employees to make up their minds.)  We need to be alert to defaults that we accept without thinking and choices we make when we know what others have chosen; in both cases, we may end up with a sub-optimal choice for our particular circumstances. 

Thaler and Sunstein are respectable academics so they include lots of endnotes with references to books, journals, mainstream media, government publications, and other sources.  Sunstein was Kahneman’s co-author for Noise, which we reviewed on July 1, 2021.

Bottom line: Nudge is an easy read about how choice architects shape our everyday experiences in the on-line world where user choices exist. 


*  Click on the Kahneman label for all our posts related to his work.

**  R.H. Thaler and C.R. Sunstein, Nudge, final ed. (New Haven: Yale University Press) 2021.