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3.7 out of 5 stars
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness
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5 of 6 people found the following review helpful
on 11 July 2009
This book is not only on David Cameron's reading list, but also on President Obama's. Therefore its appeal obviously goes beyond the audience of political arrivistes who will clutch at any straw in order to get elected to genuine statesmen who are likely to make a difference to our world and our lives in years to come.

First off, either the story about the urinals at Schipol is derivative or apocryphal. Urinals used to depict a bee (a Victorian pun - the Latin for bee is apis - geddit?) long before there were airports, but it may be for the same reason.

Yes, the book is American in the sense that many of the examples given are specifically from the US - 401ks, IRAs, health care plans and so on - but it shouldn't take too much imagination or application to realise that these are directly relevant to, for example, defined contribution pension plans in the UK, to private health care plan, but more importantly and more widely, to any choice we make that involves electing (or not electing, equally to the point) for a one of a range of options that may be available.

For instance, if you have failed to change your bank, your electricity or gas supplier and any other provider even though you know there are better (for example cheaper) alternatives available, then this book will tell you why, and therefore may encourage you to do something about it (although I wouldn't bet on that last bit).

Well worth a read if you want to see what methods policymakers will be trying to influence your behaviour with in the future, or if you want to understand how modern marketing works.

The downsides? Well, it is a bit repetitive - the theory is comparatively simple, so to fill a whole book there are a lot of empirical and practical examples, but that does serve to reinforce the background. And it's not exactly rocket science. But it is well-written and well-presented.
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on 16 February 2011
Nothing new I thought at the beginning. But it is new. It became apparent, not from reading the book, but from the radio and television which kept referring to "Nudging" that the book is currently immensely influential.
The theme is that we humans are not economists basing choice on purely rational principles. People do not have time or the ability for reflective thought on every choice they make. The world is made safer and easier by gut reaction or automatic thought which sets a default option. But such rules of thumb involve bias and anchoring thought in familiar patterns. It encourages the tendency towards the status quo.
So, recognising this, the authors develop the concept of rational paternalism. It is valid to leave people free to choose but to influence their behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.
They examine choice architecture and how to design default options involving the path of least resistance; or how to expect people to make errors; how to improve their performance by giving feedback; how to structure complex choices and how to incentivise people.
Where the book begins to make real impact is when it then applies this logic to a number of practical policies. Pension provision, mortgages, the Swedish privatised Social Security, how to increase organ donations, saving the planet and privatising marriage are all examined.
But it is small nudges to social situations that, properly thought through, can have massive consequences. And choice architects can preserve freedom of choice whilst nudging people in a direction that will improve their lives.
An important and stimulating book.
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Like "Predictably Irrational" by Dan Ariely (which I read first), this is a work essentially about behavioural economics from an American academic stable - Thaler is a Professor of Behavioural Science and Sunstein is a Professor of Jurisprudence, both at the University of Chicago - but it is a duller read than Ariely's book, although it covers broader ground in being concerned with non-economic as well as marketplace decisions.

Thaler & Sunstein present their writing as about choice architecture which they describe as "organizing the context in which people make decisions". The choice architecture which they advocate is what they call "libertarian paternalism": the libertarian element derives from their stance that people should be free to do what they want and to opt out of undesirable arrangements if they wish, while the paternalism bit lies in their claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people's behaviour "in a way that will make choosers better off as judged by themselves". The means of achieving this is what they characterise as a 'nudge' which is defined as "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".

What sort of 'nudges' do Thaler & Sunstein suggest? Options include simplification of choices, careful presentation of choices, provision of relevant and timely information, early and useful feedback, application of peer pressure, use of priming, application of default options, and use of incentives. The authors review the use of such 'nudges' in a whole variety of contexts including selection of a mortgage, use of a credit card, selecting a prescription drug scheme or a social security plan, choosing a pension plan and paying into it over its life, deciding how much to invest and where to do so, designing an organ donation programme, and even the privatisation (as they term it) of marriage.

In terms of when and where 'nudges' can be most useful and appropriate, they argue that 'nudges' are necessary when decisions are difficult and rare (such as choosing a mortgage or a pension arrangement), for which they do not obtain prompt feedback (such as diets and long-term investments), and when they have trouble translating aspects of the situation into terms that can be easily understood (such as the implications for the environment of consumption choices).

The main messages of this valuable work are that people do not make wholly rational choices based on what classical economics and traditional economists predict or politicians and policymakers expect, decisions can and should be shaped or influenced by a wide variety of 'nudges', and - since 'nudges' cannot be avoided - we should use choice architecture that is based on the principle of libertarian paternalism. It is a practical and pragmatic stance which should appeal to both conservatives and liberals.
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Welcome to the fascinating world of "libertarian paternalism," our Automatic and Reflective Systems, choice architecture, and the principle of "nudging."

Basically most of us are fallible Humans: lazy or confused, or simply too busy, to make the right decisions in life without some help. Only a few of us are Econs, or the perfect economic man, using his capability to maximum benefit for himself and others.

Here is a description, often amusing, but always with a serious message, of how we can be influenced in our decision-making, with enormous implications for us all; of how small features in any situation can have massive effects on our behaviour, "nudging" us in good or bad ways, and how this phenomenon can be beneficially applied without compromising freedom of choice. The authors tackle smoking, obesity, saving for retirement, health care, climate change, even making suggestions for rethinking the institution of marriage (basically privatize it). They even invite our own ideas on suitable topics for future nudging treatment (see [...] ). The authors really do deliver what they promise in the strapline: ways to improve our decisions about health, wealth and happiness. And whilst written with an American emphasis this is no less readable or relevant anywhere else.

The authors not only explain how both public and private policies can be improved, but show that these ideas can usefully cut across political divides, in our overly polarized society, and are relevant for anyone in any position of responsibility, of leadership or authority, for example in business, in church groups, in clubs, etc. and yes, even in families (how, I wonder, can I "nudge" my son to tidy his room?!). At governmental level these ideas, they explain, will make for better governance, and this significance is seemingly not lost on either David Cameron or Barack Obama.

The book concludes with a thoughtful chapter that tackles head on any objections we may have - fears of the "slippery slope," or the potential "bad" nudgers, for example; and how to avoid a "nudge" becoming a "shove" or even worse.

The second edition also has a chapter on the 2007/08 financial crisis. This explains with clarity and within the context of the book just why the crash happened, and how we may be able to avoid a repeat, but only, the authors stress, if we ensure we understand fully the human behaviour behind it.

One of the problems with the almost inevitable lag between researching an idea and the final publication of the book based on that idea is that in this increasingly fast moving world things can date very rapidly. But this is a very minor criticism and in no way detracts from the value of this book, with its advice which if not exactly timeless should certainly have a long and useful shelf life.

This is a book I would like to have written myself; I certainly wish I had known of it when it first came out in 2008. I can strongly recommend it as a good read for all thoughtful persons who would like to help create a better world for us all.
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20 of 24 people found the following review helpful
VINE VOICEon 9 November 2008
Though there is little in this book that is completely new, it draws together many of the key current ideas on how people make decisions. In particular it shows that people may make very different decisions depending on how information about the decision is presented.

It is illustrated throughout with excellent examples, which brings the book to life.

There is material in this book that I will apply directly in the work that I do in the pensions field. However it is useful in any field where people have difficult decisions to make that may have a huge impact on their life (for example what medical treatment to have, how to invest life savings, what mortgage to take out).

Its key overall theme is that there is no neutral way to present information. We should strive to present it in a way that leads people to make what we believe is the decision that is in their best interest. Paternalism, but with freedom of choice.

This is an excellent book and well worth reading.
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on 5 September 2011
This book has one central insight which is broadly applicable (some would say applied already) in many aspects of public policy, namely that default settings matter and consumers / voters can sometimes be led towards their best interests gently. This is particularly useful when decisions are complex, choice can be over-whelming and there is a time delay between decision and result. It draws on sound science and has a growing base on evidence on which to build its claims.

All of which is good, but...

...I can't help feeling "That's it?". Beyond about page 75 you've got the point and the elaboration from there on adds little. It's as if the book had to fill a standard size to be credible, because a long magazine article couldn't have had the same impact.

If the net result is that more people read it, take it on board and act upon it (and once you've read the book you see its philosophy everywhere in the trendier side of the UK's Cameron coalition) then the world will be a slightly better place, and that's not a bad achievement.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 8 February 2014
I expected a more informed essay on how to motivate people. A good starter book for school children interested in the subject but there is nothing new or inspired in the pages. Mostly can not be applied world wide and does not touch on the fact the US society has been indulged with non-stop subliminal messages since the 50`s..
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on 28 September 2013
If you're looking for a novel take on some newly revealed social process look elsewhere. This is a particularly badly structured 'discussion' of something that your average citizen can work out for themselves stuck in traffic on the way to work. The authors give away their partisan points of view throughout and insert themsleves into to their 'dialoguing' in such an intrusive way one is tempted to swear at them to 'pipe down for heavens sake and and on with the subject at hand'. Often, they leave their ideas hanging - getting diverted by their own 'cleverness' and conceit. Frankly, unless you have nothing else to read and you need a diversion, I wouldn't bother with this tripe. It seems to have been written by a couple of teenagers with egos as big as their gel-styled hair-dos.
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on 15 April 2014
(This review is of the Kindle edition) When the book first emerged in the UK it was taken up by professional politicians - seeking what Winston Churchill called "the art of the possible". What one doable thing can you execute that enables a broader/deeper social phenomenon?

And the authors do it well. Clear writing, effective examples, and a gradual build towards a strong understanding of what makes societies and individuals tick, and why they make the decisions they do. I found it a good read alongside Kahneman's "Thinking, Fast and Slow" which goes more into the psychology side; Thaler and Sunstein are more practitioners. Definitely worth reading.
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1 of 1 people found the following review helpful
on 25 October 2013
This book has a few good ideas but doesn't half go on. Very US centric with pages of stuff that a non US citizen will glaze over at. If it was half it's length then it would be twice as good.
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