Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Can a Nudge help you make better decisions

It is assumed by many economists that most choices are rational and well informed.  This defies what most of us know about decision making especially when we examine our own choices.  The authors set an idealistic framework for decisions.  Idealistic, but also practical.  The better decisions made by individuals, the better for society and of course the individuals.

Libertarian paternalism is their guiding principle.  They believe in as much freedom as practical, but feel we all need to be guided for our own good, especially with difficult complex choices.   The authors say people can be divided into Econs, that is people who make rational decisions and Humans who make, well human decisions.  They advocate that people be given wide choices, encouraged to get advice and a key is to have a rational or at least a safe choice as the default.

The authors expend much energy demonstrating how humans have poor self control and are right now being manipulated in many different subtle ways.  We understand how many decisions are made.  Anchoring is one phenomenon that has been proven to increase desired results.  Many other factors are understood and are being used by businesses, governments and others to manipulate decisions.  The authors are advocating that this understanding be used to encourage decisions that are more beneficial for individuals while at the same time giving them a truly free choice..

The default is necessary when as too often happens people avoid making a decision.  Opt-in or Opt-out makes a difference.  Supporting options with information, but avoid confusing the issue.  They also advocate a strong feedback system so people can understand what has happened in the past and even suggest alternatives.

Conformity is a natural human trait, probably helped us survive.  I recall some of the experiments cited from my sociology courses.  In one of my classes we duplicated one experiment trying to show how people could be pressured into agreeing with obvious mistakes.  We went further to test whether women or men were more apt to conform to an erroneous observation.  I feel very guilty in that I persuaded the sister of a close friend to participate.  Although very intelligent she had been raised in a central American culture where women defer to men.  The authors conclude that to persuade people to adopt your preferred behaviour it is better to suggest that many others already do and/or that the trend is towards this new behaviour.

Computer programs can help determine what people like us tend to like, but as the authors point out it might be good to learn what people unlike us like.  Actually well balanced people have an understanding of what other people think and sometimes even modify their opinions.

There are lots of practical examples given.  They see a need for more organ donations and suggest it would be more effective using an opt-out system.  In other words unless you make an effort to not donate your organs it could be almost automatic.  They acknowledge there would be concerns and they offer suggestions.

Environmental concerns are on everyone's minds, but they prefer ways to persuade and inform citizens to do the right thing than to mandate behaviour

When they wrote the book same sex marriages were not so common or so legal, but they thought a solution was to privatize marriage.  Let religious people marry in religious settings with their own rules.  Let same sex people marry, but not force non believers to participate.  Acknowledges legal concerns which they reduce to contracts between individuals.  The problem many of us see is that non believers can make it difficult for same sex couples to make the choices they want to make.  Prejudice is something that cannot be rooted out with laws, but over time can soften and some of their suggestions might be helpful.

One interesting suggestion they make (and someone may have made progress in this regard) is to have software that can detect angry emails and force (or suggest) you need to cool off before sending it.  How many of us over-react to some slight and do something we later regret?  I think it is is the story of mankind.

The book was written in 2008 and a reader can appreciate that some of their suggestions have occurred.  The principles they discuss can have an ongoing applications.  They left a blog site you can check at:  http://nudges.org

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