Report: Nudge

Book Review:

Nudgeclick for an external review

Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

This is not a self help book, and it is not about Buddhism.It was the ‘best book of the year’ for both the Economist and the Financial Times. And it is all about Choice.

When you enter a shop, there are certain areas of the display where you are more likely to purchase from. Generally it is somewhere near the middle, where the eyes will naturally fall. The shop manager can put whatever products they wish here, knowing you are more likely to buy those things.

Take a canteen – should the fruit and yoghurt be displayed in the prime spot? Or something unhealthy that people like, such as crisps (potato chips if you are American) – so the customer easily picks what they really want. Or do you display whatever items will make you the most immediate profit?

Note that all the foodstuffs are available in each case, but the display simply tips you in one direction or another. Most people think they know what they want and will choose it, but all the research shows this is not true. Most people in fact are easily directed by subtle clues. This will have happened to you, and you will have been nudged.

 The world is a complex place and it does a good job of keeping us busy. Most of us just do not have the time to think deeply about every choice we make. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein explain that people look for rules of thumb for decision making; these strategies often work so well for the small decisions in life, such as buying a television from a trusted brand name, that we are tempted to use similar shortcuts for more consequential choices as well, such as selecting a retirement plan because it is the one we have heard of before. If everyone had ready access to complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control, we would likely deliberate much more about these choices, and demonstrate unerring wisdom. Since that is not the case, we need some help to make the best choices. Nudge suggests that, by following simple principles, choice architects can provide it.

So for any organisation, the way they structure choice is very important. Take for instance the opt-in and opt-out organ donation systems. For some countries you have to fill out a form and carry a special card to opt-in to organ donation. In other countries you have to register in order to opt-out. The latter countries have 10x more organ donations since most people are fairly happy with the idea, and do not opt-out. The opt-in countries have relatively few organ donors. Again note that in both instances you are not having a decision forced on you, but you are nudged in one direction or another.

“Past research suggests that most of the time, people will select the default option, either because they think that somebody made it the default because they thought it was good for them, or because they are lazy, or just spaced out and forgot to fill out the form,” explains Thaler. “The problem is that the people who designed the default may not have selected the default because they thought it was good for somebody—they may not have put enough thought into it.”

The authors present multiple instances of both good and bad choice architecture. Government tax schemes, incentives to save money for retirement, even to wear crash helmets on motorcycles. All the examples are real world. And some venture way out of the scope you would expect – the suggestion to privatise marriage for instance. That would take too much space to explain here.

The authors also present excellent research that they have gleaned from the academic world. For example, how much do you value something you have, over something you do not have? Odd question? Well it was researched and the results showed that once you possess something you value it twice as highly as the same or equal thing you do not possess. This means that people do not like to let go, even when it makes sense to do so.

Roughly speaking, losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing makes you happy.

All such statements are carefully explained and proven with up-to-date research.

Careful choice architecture can steer people to greener, safer cars. It can lead people to using less gas, saving more for the future, or choosing a school. A little research into how people make choices and a little passive nudging can change the world.

One reaction to all this from a monastic mind, is how much this society values choice. Buddhist monastics have a long set of regulations called the Vinaya. Typically it is believed to comprise 227 rules – but this is only the rules that are recited every 2 weeks in the Patimokkha ceremony. In fact there are thousands of regulations in the Vinaya. Practically every aspect of a monk or nuns behaviour has some kind of rule hovering over it. What and how you eat, how you walk, regulation haircut and uniform.

Might society be better off with less choice?

Choice encourages judging – what is good and what is bad. Like the people who say they like Coke, but not Pepsi. If you are asked to choose, you form vedana – feeling of liking disliking. Then you hunt the things you like, and avoid things you perceive yourself as disliking. It is a subtle trap, and one that takes some renunciation to see through. As monks and nuns we try to cultivate a sense of contentment, rather than a nice set up where we get just what we want. Contentment is much happier than sense pleasure.

Here is a translation of one of the Pali Chants that Monastics learn as a reminder to value contentment :

Wisely reflecting, I use the robe: only to ward off cold, to ward off
heat, to ward off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, burning and
creeping things, only for the sake of modesty.
Wisely reflecting, I use almsfood: not for fun, not for pleasure, not
for fattening, not for beautification, only for the maintenance and
nourishment of this body, for keeping it healthy, for helping with the
Holy Life; thinking thus, “I will allay hunger without overeating, so
that I may continue to live blamelessly and at ease.”
Wisely reflecting, I use the lodging: only to ward off cold, to ward off
heat, to ward off the touch of flies, mosquitoes, wind, burning and
creeping things, only to remove the danger from weather, and for
living in seclusion.

Wisely reflecting, I use supports for the sick and medicinal requisites:
only to ward off painful feelings that have arisen, for the maximum
freedom from disease.



4 replies on “Report: Nudge”

  1. With a few clicks it was so easy being nudged into buying this book (Kindle edition) after reading this post. 🙂

  2. QUESTION: Is it assumed that Buddha followed all those thousands of regulations as well?

    I ask this because isn’t it all really about mind control and whether one’s mind is under their own control or someone else’s? Following a spiritual practice religiously to improve one’s understanding is great but once there is understanding, is there a need for any more nudging?

    …Or does the mind need CONSTANT REMINDING?

    Metta & Thanks

    1. According to the Vinaya this was the automatic behaviour of the Buddha. The rules came up when people did things that he would not …. yet historically we know that most of the Vinaya rules came up after the Buddha’s time.
      Maha Kassapa was asked why he continued to be a rigorous renunciate after he became an arahant. He said it was a a suitable way to live for one who had gone beyond birth/ageing/death and was an encouragement to junior monks and laypeople, i.e. they still needed a nudge.

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