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Nudge [Paperback]

Richard H. Thaler


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Nudge Every day we make decisions: about the things that we buy or the meals we eat; about the investments we make or our children's health and education; even the causes that we champion or the planet itself. This book offers a fresh way of looking at the world for individuals and governments alike.

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Amazon.com: 3.4 out of 5 stars  168 reviews
135 of 151 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Homo Economicus Gives Way to Homo Irrationalus 27 Oct 2009
By Hagios - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
The good part of this book is that it contains a lot of practical and nonpartisan policy advice, such as requiring corporations to sign people up for the 401(k) by default and then letting them opt out. This is an example of what they mean by "nudge". You don't need to coerce people; since something has to be the default option you can at least give them intelligent defaults.

The bad side of the book is its poor understanding of human nature. Libertarian economists such as Gary Becker have been aggressively promoting free markets based on a mathematical vision of rational decision making. Needless to say, this vision could only apply to ultra-logical people like Mr. Spock - the notorious Homo economicus. The breakthroughs of behavioral economics teach us that real people do not act like Mr. Spock. This book does an excellent job explaining the major findings of behavioral economics. But rather than try to understand the richness of real human behavior, most behavioral economists tilt towards the opposite extreme. They pronounce humans as irrational and filled with hidden biases. Homo economicus has been replaced by Homo irrationalus.

That's unfortunate because the real story of human nature is far more interesting. Consider the case of loss aversion (pp 33-34). In a classic experiment which has been replicated hundreds of times, students were randomly given free coffee mugs. The mug-less students were asked how much they would pay to get a mug and the students with mugs were asked how much they would want in order to sell their mugs. It turns out that students with mugs wanted an average of about twice as much as the mug-less students were willing to pay! This goes by the name of loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the status quo bias. It is labeled a bias because a self-respecting member of Homo economicus would think about how often he drinks coffee, how often he does the dishes, and how many mugs he currently has. Based on this analysis he would put a price on a new coffee mug. That price would not influence by whether or not he just got a mug for free. But in fact this behavior is rational. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein conclude that "loss aversion operates as a kind of cognitive nudge, pressing us not to make changes, even when changes are very much in our interests." (p.34)

The method behind our seemingly irrational madness is found in a classic problem in game theory - the game of hawks and doves. Hawk and dove are different strategies people can use when they are in a conflict over a prize. The prize could be anything. For butterflies it could be a sunlit leaf because male butterflies have more mating success when they occupy such a position. For feral horses it could be a pool of water (Herb Gintis reviews the literature in _The Bounds of Reason_). Doves are sharers. When two doves see a prize they will share it. When two hawks see a prize they will fight over it. When a hawk meets a dove the dove will yield the prize to the hawk. A world of all doves is basically a communist utopia where everyone shares everything. It is also efficient because people maximize the use of available resources (prizes). The problem is that it is not what biologists and game theorists call an evolutionary stable strategy. It can easily be invaded by hawks. The first person to switch to the hawk strategy will get the entire prize without cost wherever he goes. Over time more and more and people will play hawk. That's inefficient because the cost of fighting must be subtracted from the value of the prize.

We have a problem. A world with doves is efficient but unstable. A world with hawks is inefficient but stable. The evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith found the answer - the bourgeois strategy. That means "play hawk when you own the prize and dove when someone else does." A world of bourgeoisie is efficient because it eliminates fighting as effectively as the dove strategy. It is also an evolutionary stable strategy that cannot be invaded by hawks. That's because hawks are basically parasites on doves - they need the free prizes to offset the cost of fighting. A necessary consequence of adopting the bourgeois strategy is that people will value prizes that they own more than prizes that other people own. That's the real reason for loss aversion. It is not a "bias" but an efficient and stable strategy that provides the strategic foundation for the rule of law. The cost of enforcing the law goes up with the number of people who are trying to break it. If people did not have a sense of loss aversion then there would be more useful trades - but there would also be conflict and fighting over prizes.

That is just one example and this is already a long review but these kinds of lessons underlie nearly all of the so-called "biases" that Thaler and Sunstein identify. If you want to learn about Homo economicus then pick up _The Economics of Life_ by Gary Becker. If you want to about Homo irrationalus then buy this book. But if you want to learn about Homo sapiens then you will need to look elsewhere. I recommend starting with Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious_ by Gerd Gigerenzer. It is the book that _Blink_ by Malcolm Gladwell should have been. Books that talk discuss the hawk-dove game and other fascinating results out of evolutionary game theory are pretty scholarly. Games in Economic Development only requires high school algebra and you can easily skip over the math. I also think that most people interested in this book would enjoy Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism. It is an accessible but sophisticated look at modern economics, including some behavioral economics.
152 of 181 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars Interesting premise, poor implementation 30 Jun 2009
By Lena - Published on Amazon.com
Format: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.
17 of 19 people found the following review helpful
4.0 out of 5 stars Improving decisions? Or manipulating decisions? Let the reader decide. 9 Jan 2011
By Steven A. Peterson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
An interesting work. . . . It speaks of how conditions can be changed and perhaps improved by "nudging" people. Rather than "beating up" on people, subtly nudge them. Fascinating reading and very provocative. Is nudging good? Or manipulative?

The authors, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, faculty at the University of Chicago, define a "nudge" as (Page 6): ". . .any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives." Indeed, they define their perspective as "libertarian paternalism." They believe in freedom but also wish to use "nudges" to induce people to improve their health, and live longer and happier.

One simple example? Has any male ever used a urinal with a fly painted onto it? This simple nudge reduces "spillage" by 40% as males involuntarily try to hit the "target." In the process, there is a benefit, less smelliness and messiness in the restroom.

The book applies the nudge argument to investments, health, school choice, organ donation, the environment, marriage, and so on. In each case, they try to show how nudges and libertarian paternalism can improve the quality of life of individuals as well as providing social benefits.

Questions do arise, as the authors themselves admit. Is this a manipulative approach? Do we subtly manipulate people into doing things that they might not voluntarily wish to do? Thaler and Sunstein address these issues. Each reader will have to determine how well they succeed. A provocative and fascinating work, well worth reading.
72 of 92 people found the following review helpful
1.0 out of 5 stars Anecdote heavy & talks down to audience 26 Jan 2010
By gojefferson - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback|Verified Purchase
Nudge mistakenly attempts to make it's simple ideas even simpler so that a popular audience can easily understand them. Unfortunately, Thaler and Sunstein set the bar way too low, and the book is annoyingly dumbed-down. Most educated people know what an externality is: you don't need to put it in quotes. Also, the endless cheekiness and attempts at humor are out of place rather than charming. One would hope that the director of the Office of Information and Regulatory Policy would write a more serious book on his theory of governmental nudging. To the authors: please challenge us with something that we (a diligent audience who wants to know what you really think) can work to understand.

Moreover, the book is structured around different contexts in which the idea of "nudging" can be applied (enviro policy, health policy, financial regulation). This easily turns into an endless stream of "nifty" anecdotes. How about organizing the book on the gradual development and exposition of the concept of governmental "nudging" and its problematics? Keynes sold hard books to a large audience, so did Schlumpeter, so did Darwin. Have people really gotten less intelligent in the last 50 years? I don't think so, but this book makes me think that these academics think so.
17 of 20 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A nudge in the other direction 9 Jan 2010
By I. M. Idle - Published on Amazon.com
Format:Paperback
I bought this book because of all the great blurbs all over the cover quoted from publications that I respect. And frankly, after reading the book I am a bit disappointed. It doesn't take long to understand the concept of choice architecture. And then the book begins to feel repetitive. The books ends up being "okay," and I wouldn't really recommend it.
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