Nudge is one of the most important and influential books on behavioral science and public policy I’ve ever read. Co-authored by economist Richard Thaler and lawyer Cass Sunstein, the book lays out the rationale for adopting policies designed to make it more likely that people will act in their own best interests rather than, say, spend money they shouldn’t spend or eat food they shouldn’t consume. In the book, Thaler and Sunstein discuss how recent advances in behavioral science should inform our attitudes towards rational decision making. Specifically, these behavioral science findings show that people don’t always make rational decisions, raising questions about when or whether outsiders—like governments or employers–should step in to help people avoid making bad choices.
But has enthusiasm for the book led people to see nudges where they don’t exist? That was the question I posed in a recent post, where I argued that it was wrong to call a well-designed traffic light a nudge: “Not all good design, even good design that influences behavior, is a nudge,” I wrote. “A well-designed prison cell is more likely to deter prisoners from trying to escape than a poorly designed one. But that does not make it a nudge.”
The day after I wrote those words, my email inbox included a forthright message from Dick Thaler, telling me I was seriously misguided about nudges. That email began an exchange that turned into a question and answer session reproduced here with Thaler’s permission. (To read the rest of this post and leave comments, please visit Forbes.)