Paternalistic Nudges

In their book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler argue in favor of libertarian paternalism. Their argument is that our world is complex and interconnected, and it is impossible for people to truly make decisions on their own. Not only is it impossible for people to simply make their own decisions, it is impossible for other people to avoid influencing the decisions of others. Whether we decide to influence a decision in a particular way, or whether we decide to try to avoid any influence on another’s decision, we still shape how decisions are presented, understood, and contextualized. Given this reality, the best alternative is to try to help people make consistently better decisions than they would without aid and assistance.


The authors describe libertarian paternalism by writing:


“The approach we recommend does count as paternalistic, because private and public choice architects are not merely trying to track or to implement people’s anticipated choices. Rather, they are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better. They nudge.”


The nudge is the key aspect of libertarian paternalism. Forcing people into a single choice, forcing them to accept your advice and perspective, and aggressively trying to change people’s behaviors and opinions doesn’t fit within the libertarian paternalism framework advocated by Sunstein and Thaler. Instead, a more subtle form of guidance toward good decisions is employed. People retain maximal choices if desired, and their opinions, decisions, and behaviors are somewhat constrained but almost nothing is completely off the table.


“A nudge,” Sunstein and Thaler write, “as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”


Daniel Kahneman, in his book Thinking Fast and Slow demonstrated that people make predictable errors and have predictable biases. If we can understand these thinking errors and biases, then we can identify situations in which these biases and cognitive errors are likely to lead people to making suboptimal decisions. To go a step further, as Sunstein and Thaler would suggest, if we are a choice architect, we should design and structure choices in a way that leads people away from predictable cognitive biases and errors. We should design choices in a way that takes those thinking mistakes into consideration and improves the way people understand their choices and options.


As a real world example, if we are structuring a retirement savings plan, we can be relatively sure that people will anchor around a default contribution built into their retirement savings plan. If we want to encourage greater retirement savings (knowing that economic data indicate people rarely save enough), we can set the default to 8% or higher, knowing that people may reduce the default rate, but likely won’t eliminate contributions entirely. Setting a high default is a nudge toward better retirement saving. We could chose not to have a default rate at all, and it is likely that people wouldn’t be sure about what rate to select and might chose a low rate below inflation or simply chose not to enter a rate at all, completely failing to contribute anything to the plan. It is clear that there is a better outcome that we, as choice architects, could help people attain if we understand how their minds work and can apply a subtle nudge.

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