Book Review: Nudge by Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein

It may seem a little slow off the mark to review a book first published in 2008 (and revised in 2009), but Nudge is a book that has been heavily commented on in the national press in recent weeks, partly because of the authors’ influence on the Obama administration but primarily as the book has reputedly been heavily influential on our own Prime Minister’s thinking.  I confess the one word title made me suspicious – mainly that this would be one of those ‘here’s the answer to everything … well, if you over-simplify it enough’ books. (One of these days, I am tempted to write a book called Shrug, not just to make my indifference clear but to attempt to profit from it.)

It seems fair to say that Nudge will, certainly in time, be seen as a highly influential text: the book’s ‘behavioural economics’ approach to modern life and the human condition has already influenced the US statute book. To give fair warning to UK-based readers, however, the authors’ interest in the human condition and human behavioural traits and patterns does not necessarily make their work a universal one. As recent reviews of Tony Blair’s A Journey have shown, books can reveal things about their authors that aren’t always what was intended.

Written when both men were in the employment of the University of Chicago, the book operates largely within the cultural framework of contemporary America. The Swedish Social Security system may be reviewed at length, but the only reference for ‘United Kingdom’ in the index points you to a single paragraph about the National Pension Savings Scheme. While the book repeatedly calls upon the reader to acknowledge its fair-handed appeal to Republican and Democrat alike, the UK reader is left viewing another country’s socio-political spectrum from the vantage point of their own. (Anyone expecting one of the currently equally in vogue ‘what’s wrong with capitalism’ books will also be disappointed: there may be a postscript acknowledging the impact of the global recession, but the ‘invisible hand’ was never going to get its knuckles even lightly rapped here.)

I had a number of issues with Nudge as a book. First of these was – to be blunt – that it just wasn’t that interesting: in common with many books that attempt to cover psychology, relationships, economics and very nearly the kitchen sink (we’ll come to the ‘famous’ urinal moment later), it has a tendency to be 50% longer than the points it is making deserve. Choosing for its title a verb that is sometimes used for what we do to people who are snoring too loudly seemed slightly unfortunate, but there is little that is actually radically new here. If you have a general idea about the psychology of supermarket design, for example, you’ll get the main point quite quickly. Though it would like to be seen as radical, there are more than a few glimpses of a less than youthful buttock beneath the Emperor’s New Robes. Even the idea of ‘government’ hinting and guiding alongside legislating isn’t new. The Imperial War Museum’s current – and excellent – Ministry for Food exhibition provides both a history lesson and helpful nutritional hints.

My second reservation was that the book is ultimately condescending. Dividing the world into ‘Econs’ (perfectly logical beings who make entirely sensible decisions guided by theories of classical economics) and ‘Humans’ (us numpties that mess up because of human behavioural traits and make perfect markets operate imperfectly along the way), it’s hard not to start feeling that you are being either flattered as an ‘Econ’ (although flattery doesn’t appear to be their intention’) or talked down to. The repeated references to Homer Simpson stopped making me smile fairly early on, and started making me fairly resentful shortly after. Having read the book before the reviews, I was slightly more flattered to read others whose reaction seemed to be broadly similar. Design consultant Martyn Perks’ review for Spiked Online commented:

… the authors only operate along one trajectory throughout the whole book in order to make their point: the systematic demolition of any notion of humans as being capable of rational decision-making. They consciously choose to point out human fallibility and frailty as being a defining human characteristic. This reveals their lack of admiration of the human spirit.”

Pat Kane, reviewing the book for The Independent, was more straightforwardly offended:

Economists have finally realised that human beings aren’t the hyper-rational maximisers of gain that their calculations were based on. Now we have to go along with their equally strident claims about the messy reality of human nature.”

It was also conspicuous that Nudges ultimately happen in one (social) direction: downward. In Thaler and Sunstein’s new world, there is no scope for the Humans spotting an error (however unthinkable or rare) by the Econs and nudging the Econs’ behaviour in a helpful way – nor indeed of providing feedback on their impact. Feedback, like nudging, comes only from above. We may be encouraged to try on those Emperor’s New Robes, but a 360 degree mirror seems to be off the shopping list. A certainly infallibility on behalf of those determining the choices available to us poor old Homers is also seemingly assumed: whether or not christening these people as ‘choice architects’ is a bad case of job title inflation, their grandeur is – it seems – impervious to delusion, and proofed against accountability. As Slate magazine queried in its own review:

Given that someone someplace is often setting the defaults anyhow, wouldn’t we prefer that the guy in charge be Mr. Spock? Could any of us agree, however, about which Mr. Spock is truly worthy of making these decisions?”

My third reservation is perhaps less fair, but – for the intended audience of this blog – more relevant. While the book is concerned with our behavioural shortcomings, their repercussions and ways of overcoming them, this is not a book that offers a great deal for the L&D professional. Indeed, Thaler and Sunstein’s intentions seem to be rather more about bringing the world down to Homer Simpson’s level than about raising Homer’s.  As the earlier quotes have suggested, they don’t even seem to believe that Homer can be ‘educated’. In terms of behaviours that we can be ‘nudged’ into, lasting change seems – at least in Nudge – to be often limited to situations where it is primarily human inertia that will prevent us from backsliding to our previous choice (having agreed to donate our kidneys, for example).  Our ability – unless we are among the gilded ‘Econs’ – to overcome our shortcomings and consciously involve ourselves in striving for long-term behavioural change is beyond the book’s radar: it is slightly depressing that the book implies that it may beyond the authors’ radars too. As Professor John Maude, Director of the Centre for Decision Research, University of Leeds, commented in a letter to the Independent following extensive recent coverage of the book and its impact in the Westminster village:

“Nudged” decisions are associated with less commitment so people will give up on them more readily when outcomes are disappointing.

 So “nudging” people may be effective in the short term. But in the longer term it may be less effective, particularly in situations where people are likely to experience a mixture of both positive and negative outcomes. Since longer-term change is usually the primary objective, we may be better encouraging active involvement rather than a “nudge”.

And so, finally, to the urinals. The most commonly cited anecdote from the book concerns the gents toilets at Schipol Airport, Amsterdam. Whatever the passing gents’ intentions, their accuracy has historically been questionable. But lo! Painting a fly on the urinal improves their aim dramatically, and the floor stays 80% drier. While I’m sure the cleaners are thrilled – unless, of course, they’re now unemployed - there are a few objections. Firstly, this isn’t news: the Victorians painted bees (the joke is that the French for bee is ‘apis’) in chamberpots over a century ago. Indeed, as one poster at the Museum of Hoaxes website informs us:

Their true purpose is to mark the optimum area for minimising splashback, as a passage in the mayor’s handbook at Wigan Town Hall confirms when describing two Edwardian gents urinals within the building: “These have a small picture of a bee etched into their glaze at a point which indicates where men were supposed to aim in order to avoid splashing their spats.”

(Wigan Council’s website confirms the story, by the way.) The world has indeed moved on. When did you last see someone in spats?

Secondly, this is by far the most commonly cited example in the book. Yes, it’s mildly amusing, but it’s on page 4. Either the rest of the book is less memorable – not an encouraging sign in a book that aims to give us important lessons – or the world’s journalists either a) didn’t read any further, or b) are taking the um… mickey.

But there’s another point: is there any evidence that any other floors have been spared a long history of ignominious treatment at the er… hands of passing gentlemen as a result, or just the ones with insect illustrations or other jovial devices? Life and learning are considerably more complex and demanding challenges than urinating – even for men – and a nudge has a time and a place (although, not one would have thought, in the during stage of proceedings?), but wouldn’t a better long-term result be something that encouraged those men passing through Schipol to  … well, get a grip? And maybe even lent a little support?

I’m left attempting to shrug off an impression that if economics really is a dismal science, then behavioural economics in turns represents a dismal view of behaviour. I suspect anyone really interested in human behaviour and in supporting learning and performance improvement will – when nudge comes to shove – find that there may be wiser choices of book than this one.

Add to: Facebook | Digg | Del.icio.us | Stumbleupon | Reddit | Blinklist | Twitter | Technorati | Furl | Newsvine

Add to FacebookAdd to NewsvineAdd to DiggAdd to Del.icio.usAdd to StumbleuponAdd to RedditAdd to BlinklistAdd to TwitterAdd to TechnoratiAdd to Furl

Leave a Comment

* required

Please upgrade your version of Internet Explorer to view this website, or turn off Compatibility Mode.