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In Theory: David Brooks’ Partial Endorsement of Nudges

David Brooks endorsed the use of “nudges” (also known as libertarian paternalism) in his New York Times column yesterday, at least partially, giving a cautious thumbs up to the new unit in Washington, DC, headed up by psychologist Maya Shankar. This is how Brooks breaks it down: “I’d say the anti-paternalists win the debate in theory but the libertarian paternalists win it empirically.” Why the split decision?

In theory, I wake up every morning at 5:45 to go jogging, then I take a quick shower before sitting down to enjoy a delicious but healthy breakfast with my family. In theory I ride my bike in to work, I bring my own lunch that I make at home, and I spend the day fastidiously on task so that by the end of the day I don’t have a huge backlog of work piled up and 20 emails that I urgently need to respond to.

That’s in theory. In reality, I’m human. Even though I may truly intend to do all those things, as you may have already guessed, I often fail.

I stay up late catching up on emails, so I hit the snooze button when my alarm clock sounds at 5:45. By the time I’m woken up an hour later by my two-year-old it’s too late to squeeze in that run, and I’m running far too late to sit down to breakfast, or pack my lunch, or bike to work. And so it goes throughout the day. Theory very quickly starts drowning in reality and if I’m going to do any of the things I intended to I could really use a hand. That’s when a nudge can be really helpful.

The beauty of nudges is that they don’t force me to do anything I don’t already want to do. Even when they steer me in a particular direction, they make it incredibly easy for me to reverse course and do exactly what I want. When I stumble into the break room in the middle of the afternoon and there’s a box of donuts on the counter, they can be really hard to resist, even if I don’t really want one. A nudger’s solution: leave a bowl of fruit on the counter instead and keep the donuts in the cupboard. If I want a donut I can still easily get one, but at least my good intentions have a fighting chance. In theory, if I want a banana and not a donut I should just choose to eat a banana and not a donut. In practice, sometimes I could use a little help (and empirical data repeatedly bears this out; if you’re looking for references, check out Thaler and Sunstein’s Nudge, or just ask in the comments section).

Brooks worries that, “If government starts manipulating decision-making processes, then individuals won’t learn to think for themselves. Even just setting a default position reduces liberty and personal responsibility.” Perhaps that’s true in theory. But I would argue that the opposite is actually often true. If I eat the donut because it’s easy — because it’s sitting there on the counter, taunting me with tantalizing chocolate frosting, I’m barely making a choice. That’s just my reptile brain acting on auto-pilot. But if I have to consciously decide to reach past the fruit bowl and into the cupboard to get the donut, then that’s a choice that I own.


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