Aad Kieboom, a Dutch economist consulting on the expansion of Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport, not long ago decided  the time had come to solve the problem of accuracy in men’s rooms. His solution was to improve patrons’ aim by having flies etched inside the urinals as a target. In trials, the flies were found to reduce splatter by 80%.

Kieboom’s etchings are what  Cass Sunstein and Edward Thaler call a nudge in their book of the same name.  Thaler, a behavioural economist, and Sunstein, a legal scholar, were until last year colleagues at the University of Chicago.  Sunstein, after a brief detour to Harvard, was recently appointed by another former colleague from Chicago, President Barack Obama, to run the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. There, he oversees the flow of information from, into and within government and the crafting of federal regulations. Directors of OIRA have seldom been household names; Sunstein may prove the exception.

He first came onto my radar when he presented at a June 1992 conference in Washington on constitutional options for post apartheid South Africa. I forget his exact thrust that day. What I do know is that he became a great admirer of the constitution South Africans did finally work out for themselves.

He would later write glowingly of the inclusion of social and economic rights. South Africa’s “national debate on that topic”, he enthused, “was probably the most sophisticated in the history of the world”.  Even better was the way the Constitutional Court interpreted these cases in the Grootboom and Treatment Action Campaign cases. What he liked was how those rulings forced  government to take the rights to shelter and appropriate health care seriously but without imposing on policymakers an impossible set of obligations.

What the South African experience demonstrated, he wrote in 2001, was that socio-economic guarantees can serve an invaluable function “by promoting a certain kind of deliberation, not by pre-empting it, as a result of directing political attention to interests that would otherwise be disregarded in ordinary political life.” In other words, and as he might now say, they could nudge governments in the right direction.

In his prolific output of books and papers, Sunstein returns repeatedly to how one creates the conditions under which deliberation results in sound decisions and individuals can behave appropriately and choose sound courses of action of their own volition. Therein lies the connection between flies etched into urinals and the making of good regulations, laws and constitutions.

Sunstein likes to call himself a libertarian paternalist. Choice is good; people should have lots of it. There is, however, no harm and potentially much good in framing choices in such a way that good ones get made. South Africa’s constitution frames the choices its government may make in a way that creates a bias towards the poor and the weak. Likewise, all governments, South Africa’s included, can design “choice architecture”, as Sunstein and Thaler call it, to nudge their citizens in various desirable directions without infringing on their freedom to chose badly.

A constant subtext in Sunstein’s work (and perhaps an important factor in his relationship with Obama ) is his thirst for a political middle way that gets beyond the standard labels and discourages polarization. His latest book, Going to Extremes, looks at how groups of like-minded people often default to the positions espoused by their most over-the-top members (e.g. otherwise sensible Republicans allowing themselves to be convinced during last year’s election that Obama palled around with terrorists).  He also worries that, for all the remarkable opportunities the Internet creates for sharing information and tapping into the wisdom of the crowd, the web is also a breeding ground for extremism, making it easy for people to form closed communities that act as echo chambers for hate and paranoia.

The appeal, to Sunstein, of libertarian paternalism is as “a promising foundation for bipartisanship. In many domains, including environmental protection, family law, and school choice … better governance requires less in the way of government coalition and constraint and more in the way of freedom to choose. If incentives and nudges replace requirements and bans, government will be both smaller and more modest.”

Effective nudging depends upon a sophisticated understanding of human nature. Nudge, the book, is packed with slightly depressing research showing just how dependent we are on default responses and heuristics – methods of deciding –  located in the autopilot parts of our brains.  Sunstein readily admits that the techniques derived from such knowledge can as easily be used for ill as they can for good.  We have to hope he will use them for good in his new job.

If nothing else, a less gag-inducing men’s room at Washington’s Union station would be nice.

2 thoughts on “Nudges

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s