Avoiding Complex Decisions & Maintaining Agency

Two central ideas to the book Nudge by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler are that people don’t like to make complex decisions and that people like to have agency. Unfortunately, these two ideas conflict with each other. If people don’t like to make complex decisions, then we should assume that they would like to have experts and better decision-makers make complex decisions on their behalf. But if people want to have agency in their lives, we should assume that they don’t want anyone to make decisions for them. The solution, according to Sunstein and Thaler, is libertarian paternalism, establishing systems and structures to support complex decision-making and designing choices to be more clear for individuals with gentle nudges toward the decisions that will lead to the outcomes the individual actually desires.


For Sunstein and Thaler, the important point is that libertarian paternalism, and nudges in general, maintain liberty. They write, “liberty is much greater when people are told, you can continue your behavior, so long as you pay for the social harm that it does, than when they are told, you must act exactly as the government says.”  People resent being told what to do and losing agency. When people resist direct orders, the objective of the orders may fail completely, or violence could erupt. Neither outcome is what government wanted with its direct order.


The solution is part reframing and part redirecting personal responsibility for negative externalities. The approach favored by Sunstein and Thaler allows individuals to continue making bad or harmful choices as long as they recognize and accept the costs of those choices. This isn’t appropriate in all situations (like drinking and driving), but it might be appropriate with regard to issues like carbon taxes on corporations, cigarette taxes, or national park entrance fees.  If we are able to pin the cost of externalities to specific individuals and behaviors, we can change the incentives that people have for harmful or over-consumptive behaviors. To reach the change we want, we will have to get people to change their behavior, make complex decisions, and maintain a sense of agency as they act in ways that will help us as a collective reach the goals we set.

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