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Posted by on Jun 25, 2008 in Politics | 1 comment

Sunstein’s Nudge, “Choice Architecture”, and Obama

The Times of London looked at Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein last weekend in a piece titled politicians are devouring the work of academics who explain why the carrot beats the stick.

The research shows that while people claim social norms are the weakest of influences on them, the evidence indicates they are among the strongest. It’s good to see the pols picking up on that:

Most of us are not robots or Vulcans. Though sane, rational beings, we often behave illogically… In making decisions we often suffer from inertia, preferring the status quo to the unknown new. We are also poor at judging risk, probability and our own capabilities. According to Nudge, written by two American academics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, 90% of drivers think they are better than the average – a mathematical impossibility.

And, most important, we are strongly influenced by those around us, even though we may think we are not. Nudge gives the example of an experiment in which people are shown a number of lines and asked to identify the two that are the same length. The answer is clear, and on their own, people make the right choice. However, if participants are told that a majority before them have made another choice, in many cases they will give the same wrong answer.

These experiments have been replicated around the world. Sunstein and Thaler propose we use this understanding to build what they a call “choice architecture” which can be a powerful tool for positive social change.

“Telling people what others are doing does tend to have an effect,” [Wes Schultz of California State University] said. “But there are instances where it can boomerang – if you are using less energy than your neighbours, say by making a sacrifice by not running your air-conditioning, you can feel like a sucker.” The result: your energy consumption goes up, not down, to meet the norm. The same has been found in studies of student drinking. Told how much the norm is, some students drank less, but others started to drink more.

Schultz’s solution was to add a little nudge. Some of the participants in his study had a smiley face added to their bill if they used less energy than the norm and a sad face if they used more. The results were startling. Among the participants receiving the emoticon, the boomerang effect completely disappeared. High users reduced their consumption by even more and low users kept their own down.

Sunstein is an occasional, informal adviser to the Obama campaign. Some are not at all pleased about that. While I do not agree with Sunstein on everything, I’m thrilled that he will be among those advising Obama.

I became familiar with him in the early 1990s for his work on the First Amendment, which I assume grew out of his clerking for Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall. That he’s rumored to be engaged to Samantha Power and a potential Obama Supreme Court pick only makes the story better.


Just as we are now seeing progressives learn the lessons of GOPAC, I expect that we will soon flip the doctrine of original intent right back on those conservatives who have so successfully used it to mask their social agenda. Sunstein will be invaluable in that effort.

See, for example, this excerpt from a 2005 Fresh Air interview, on the history behind the 14th Amendment and our color-blind Consitution. He will be similarly devastating on the 1st and 2nd Amendment, among others.

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