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28 of 28 people found the following review helpful
3.0 out of 5 stars A nudge in time, 13 April 2010
This review is from: Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (Paperback)
Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Drinking Pernod in Paris watching the Seine and the world flowing by makes you feel good enough to take a whole duty free bottle of the stuff home with you. Which if you've ever tried it, you'll know is a big mistake. Pernod tastes good in Paris, or maybe elsewhere in France, because we Brits like not so much the actual drink as the context in which we consume it. But at home...

Context is the main theme of Thaler and Sunstein's `Nudge'. The authors believe that by organising the context of a situation or environment where choices have to be made that those choices can be influenced in positive (or negative) ways. Enough has already written about this book for me not to go on for too long about it. Published mid-2008, it's become the book for public service and care organisations to read and quote from - and act upon, no doubt - liberally.

But for me it's the sort of book that agency planners will have on their desks and from which they'll stick neat little quotes on their PowerPoint presentations. Like something from Gladwell's Tipping Point or Blink.

There are some lovely opening touches in this book. Such as the default setting on phones which leads most people to believe this is the `best one', the one which the manufacturer `recommends', so they leave the settings be. In the same way, a default option which automatically enrolls workers into an employee healthcare scheme or pension fund, rather than through coercion, also works well. It demonstrates the innate inertia that human beings have at heart. And why we - as an agency or any other organisation - always struggle when it comes to doing our job: changing human behaviour.

Briefly summarising, if you don't know the book, the authors, argue that big changes can come from small `nudges'. Such as those above. And that these changes can be for better (or for worse, they stress) depending on the motivations of the person responsible for any communication. Be those communications to parents with young children, doctors advising their patients, employers informing their employees about health insurance or pensions, and financial institutions offering consumers mortgages or loans. And more.

Because we're mostly all fallible humans who need help and advice, Thaler and Sunstein label anyone responsible for devising communications that advise or inform others to act as `choice architects' (I love that) and that, against the normal rule of everything that we argue, `more is more'. By which the authors mean choice should not be restricted to achieve a positive outcome: that should be the preserve of design architecture working effectively.

They have a lovely term for allowing inclusiveness of choice rather than a mediated, shortlist of possibilities to channel people in particular directions: libertarian paternalism. This, the authors argue, embodies the dual principles of freedom to choose as the guiding ideology which should be made available to everybody; and the notion that no encroachment or leaning on individuals in any way must intrude at any point. In this way coercion or `requirements' and `bans' are off limits while incentives and nudges are rooted in free choices. You can see why organisations such as COI would love this book.

So libertarian paternalism encourages freedoms and more choices, the authors say, but delivered through a self-conscious design architecture that nudges individuals to act in their own best interests by changing their behaviour in a predictable way.

This is a great read, but it's a flawed argument. It's also a book in two halves. The first `half' of the book sets up great situations, relates them to our experiences, looks at how experiments by psychologists and behaviouralists have tested human behaviour in certain situations and then draws conclusions about human activity and how it can be modified and improved upon by choices, nudges, feedback and incentives. The anecdotal and chummy writing style and the wide range of human activities it covers makes it entirely absorbing and the conclusions are generally thought provoking. Especially if you work in our business where we are continuously looking to understand and explain human behaviour. And to change it.

Where the book didn't work for me was in its assumptions. Firstly, choice architecture is set up as the basic method by which better decisions from having to choose from a greater number of (supposedly libertarian) options can be made. Unfortunately, framing these choices - in linguistic, sequential and especially contextual terms - can be highly interventionist and hugely influential. Anyone who's ever devised a questionnaire knows how important language, tone and word choice can be in driving different outcomes. Thaler and Sunstein never allow that choice architecture may be selective or censorious; rather that it will always be neutrally benign.

And then there's the book's second half. This is largely devoted to dealing with how American institutions deal with a very wide range of personal, social and economic issues. Each topic is described in slightly formulaic detail by setting up the issue and then providing a number of well documented but very localised and lengthy examples to show how libertarian paternalism can provide the nudges which help Americans improve such things as their financial choices, healthcare, education and welfare entitlements, pensions contributions and more.

Yet for all its lengthy and localised but still positive detail in the latter part of the book, the authors have done a great job in looking at how major institutions need to keep their sights firmly set on what is best for the individual rather than what's best for the state. The authors acknowledge, gladly, that technological advances and access to global information precludes simple state-organised edicts from limiting an individual's precious right to choose. And that ultimately it is that `gentle nudge' which will help inform and improve the fallible human's ultimate best choice.

Maybe. Now where's that bottle of Pernod...?
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