How much of a nudge do we need to do the right thing?

In my Findings column I discuss some ideas for gently prodding people to conserve energy. I’d like to hear your ideas, particularly if you have any suggestions for a little device that would give a real-time glowing display of your carbon footprint. I threw out a few names for it like the Green Lantern, the Eglow, the ENudge, the Nudgie. Do you have a better name, or a better nudge of kind? The best suggestion will be rewarded with a copy of “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago.

I’d also like to hear your ideas about the advisability of nudges in general. Dr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein make their case by pointing to the large body of behavioral research showing that we often make arbitrary decisions that don’t seem to jibe with our stated desires or with our best interests. If a company automatically enrolls workers in a 401(k) plan unless they choose to opt out, most people will go along with it and set aside money for their retirement. But if enrollment isn’t automatic, workers are much less likely to join the plan.

So one way or another, Dr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein argue, the company’s human-resources department is going to be nudging workers’ retirement planning simply by the way it presents the choices to them. Similarly, a cafeteria manager’s choice of which desserts to display most prominently — fruit salad or chocolate cake — will influence what customers eat.

The managers of the cafeteria and the HR department are “choice architects” who can’t help but influence us — they have to choose some way to present options and information — so they may as well try to nudge us toward better decisions, Dr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein argue. They suggest, for instance, that we’d be more likely to buy fuel-efficient cars if we were given an estimate in advance of how much the gas will cost over five years (instead of one year, as on current stickers) or how many miles it will get per dollar (instead of per gallon).

Dr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein advocate what they call “libertarian paternalism,” and they insist it’s not an oxymoron, because they advocate policies that guide people in one direction while still giving them freedom to make a different choice. I’ve been intrigued by their ideas for a while. I consulted with them in 2006 after Ben Roethlisberger, the Pittsburgh Steelers quarterback, had an accident while riding a motorcycle without a helmet. With their help, I proposed a nudge for motorcyclists that’s mentioned in their book: If motorcyclists want to ride without a helmet, make them get a special license that would demonstrate they have adequate health insurance and have been educated about the risks.

Some motorcyclists objected that the nudge could too easily turn into a shove if the fees and educational requirement for the new license were set too high, and that slippery-slope argument can be used against the other nudges proposed by Dr. Thaler and Mr. Sunstein in their book. Once politicians decide to start guiding your choices, will they be content with mere recommendations? People may suffer from the problems of “bounded rationality” when making choices, but can legislators be expected to any more rational? Even when the nudges are voluntary, like the carbon-footprint displays I propose in the Findings column, will they create so much social pressure that they lead to new mandates?

For the case against nudges, see “Paternalism and Psychology,” (PDF) an essay by the Harvard economist Edward Glaeser. For the case in favor, see “Nudge” or this essay by Mr. Sunstein and Dr. Thaler.

And for a look at some of the proposals in their book, check out these dozen nudges to help people do things like save more for retirement, give more to charity, lose weight, stop smoking, quit gambling and — my favorite — cut down on the number of angry emails they send. If people can be nudged into civil emails, maybe civil blog comments will be next.

I welcome your thoughts, pro or con, on these nudges, as well as any nudges you’d like to propose — including improvements on that glowing carbon footprint.

Original here