Wednesday, July 23, 2008

Nudge and StickK


I found this hot coffee jacket at the Washington DC airport the morning I left to come home. I think it is meant to discourage people from smoking a cigarette with their cup of coffee but it seems to me that the no smoking signs and rules in the airport already do that. What this coffee jacket does is remind those who do smoke that they really want a cigarette and they can’t have one. It is an unusual and cruel sort of torture. The coffee jacket (or should it be called a smoking jacket?) is probably a well-intentioned attempt at a nudge that backfires.

I am currently reading the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The book is subtitled Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, but it is actually an economics book. More precisely, it is about the psychological aspects of economics, including choice and decision-making. It may sound like a dry read compared to, say, People Magazine, on a long flight, but it really is very interesting. Click here to see a short video by one of the authors explaining what the book is about.

A nudge is a little push, suggestion, or opportunity to make a choice that is beneficial. It can be as simple as putting fruit at eye level and the junk food on the bottom shelf. This can have some interesting applications in parenting, especially as kids get closer to teenage years and can benefit from a libertarian paternalism (a theory of government supported by the authors) kind of parenting. Now I realize that this term is most often used in a political sense, but can we draw some similarities between forms of government and forms of parenting? If you use nudges skillfully as a parent, your child gets more practice in making decisions that are good for them without restricting their freedom. For example, could re-merchandising the kitchen to make it easier for kids to find healthy snacks make a difference in what they eat?

Toward the end of the book, the authors offer several mininudges which I find quite interesting. They are to promote charitable giving, simplifying tax returns, quitting smoking and gambling, staying healthy, stopping teenage pregnancy, remembering to change the filter on your air conditioner, stopping nail biting and alcoholism, and stopping uncivil emails. However, one of the most intriguing nudges to me is the website stickK.com, a website which allows you to make a commitment and then have either financial or nonfinancial consequences if the commitment is not fulfilled. The website was started by, you guessed it, an Economics professor! I plan to use this website as soon as I can figure out which commitment I want to stick to that badly.

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