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Thursday, September 8, 2011

Nudge This!

So I went yesterday with my husband to look at office furniture for the new clinic he is opening (office furniture and examining room furniture, and all that). We were overwhelmed (and I cannot stress that enough, OVERWHELMED!!!!) with all the choices we had to make for each and every piece of equipment and furniture we had to order. Desks come in a myriad of sizes, shapes (including the newest kidney-bean shape which is supposed to promote consultation with others), colors, and finishes, and then you have to choose details including number of drawers (keyed or not, hanging files or not), size and arrangment of drawers, whether to include a backboard that balances screens and hides cord holes, number of cord holes, casters or not, rounded edges or square edges, and on and on. Don't get me started on desk chairs or filing cabinets or medicine cabinets either. Or lockers for the staff. Or couches for the waiting room. Or examining tables (I mean, how hard could choosing  examining tables be, you wonder. Don't even ask!)

As it happens I have recently finished reading Thaler & Sunstein's Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (Penguin), and I hated it (and not just because they didn't use the Oxford comma in their subtitle). Basically what T&S argue is that since research clearly shows that decision-making is affected by variables such as the number of choices, order  in which they are presented, and context in they are offered, choice engineers should exercise "libertarian paternalism" and put choices in the context that nudges the decision makers towards results that are "good" for them (and the "paternalism" comes in with someone else knowing what is good for you.)

Now, actually the arguments presented by T&S make sense, but I still have a difficult time swallowing their policy suggestions because of the word "paternalism" and all it implies. It makes me wonder why the authors didn't follow their own advice, and label their theory with words that nudge the decision maker (such as me) towards deciding to agree with them rather than disagree with them, or like them rather than dislike them. By leaving such loaded, ugly words in the name of their theory, I suggest that T&S are actually violating their own recommendations. If they don't know what's good for their own book, how could they know what's good for me? Aaaaargh. (Although the elephant silhouettes are rather cute...)

And who's to say choice engineers won't read their book and decide to offer choices in contexts that nudges us towards maximizing their profit and/or power? I mean, have T&S looked around recently? How many entities in a position of power to engineer choices are thinking of what's good for the choice maker, rather than what's good for themselves? (And yes, I do know what libertarianism is: I even spent a couple of weeks at the Institute for Humane Studies, a libertarian research center at George Mason University, when I was a grad student, but even that can't overcome the nausea I feel when I encounter the word paternalism.)

Okay, to be fair, the part of this book I most enjoyed was about default options. I mean, if there has to be a default option, then the choice engineer might as well think it through rather than apply a random one...which logic can extend to every part of choice engineering, I know (if there has to be an order of presentation, etc etc etc). I'm just saying, change the name!

Okay, rant over. Go back to your lives. I'm going back to the furniture catalogues myself...

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