Navigating Uncertainty with Nudges

In Risk Savvy Gerd Gigerenzer makes a distinction between known risks and uncertainty. In a foot note for a figure, he writes, “In everyday language, we make a distinction between certainty and risk, but the terms risk and uncertainty are used mostly as synonyms. They aren’t. In a world of known risks, everything, including the probabilities, is known for certain. Here statistical thinking and logic are sufficient to make good decisions. In an uncertain world, not everything is known, and one cannot calculate the best option. Here, good rules of thumb and intuition are also required.” Gigerenzer’s distinction between risk and uncertainty is important. He demonstrates that people can manage decision-making when making risk based decisions, but that people need to rely on intuition and good judgement when dealing with uncertainty. One solution to improved judgement and intuition is to use nudges.

In the book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler encourage choice architects to design systems and structures that will help individuals make the best decision in a given situation as defined by the chooser. Much of their argument is supported by research presented by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking Fast and Slow, where Kahneman demonstrates how predictable biases and cognitive errors can lead people to making decisions that they likely wouldn’t make if they had more clear information, had the ability to free themselves from irrelevant biases, and could improve their statistical thinking. Gigerenzer’s quote supports Sunstein and Thaler’s nudges by building on the research from Kahneman. Distinguishing between risk and uncertainty helps us understand when to use nudges, and how aggressive our nudges may need to be.

Gigerenzer uses casino slot machines as an example of risk and for examples of uncertainty uses stocks, romance, earthquakes, business, and health. When we are gambling, we can know the statistical chances that our bets will pay off and calculate optimal strategies (there is a reason the casino dealer stays on 17). We won’t know what the outcome will be ahead of time, but we can precisely define the risk. The same cannot be said for picking the right stocks, the right romantic partner, or when creating business, earthquake preparedness, or health plans. We may know the five year rate of return for a company’s stocks, the divorce rate in our state, the average frequency and strength of earthquakes in our region, and how old our grandfather lived to be, but we cannot use this information alone to calculate risk. We don’t know exactly what business trends will arise in the future, we don’t know for sure whether we have a genetic disease that will strike us (or our romantic partner) down sooner than expected, and we can’t say for sure that a 7.0 earthquake is or is not possible next month.

But nudges can help us in these decisions. We can use statistical information for business development and international stock returns to identify general rules of thumb when investing. We can listen to parents and elders and learn from their advice and mistakes when selecting a romantic partner, intuiting the traits that make a good (or bad) spouse. We can overengineer our bridges and skyscrapers by 10% to give us a little more assurance that they can survive a major and unexpected earthquake. Nudges are helpful because they can augment our gut instincts and help bring visualizations to the rules of thumb that we might utilize.

Expecting everyone’s individual intuition and heuristics to be up to the task of navigating uncertainty is likely to lead to many poor choices. But, if we help pool the statistical information available, provide guides, communicate rules of thumb that have panned out for many people, and structure choices in ways that help present this information, then people can likely make marginally better decisions. My suggestion in this post, is a nudge to use more nudges in moments of uncertainty. When certainty exists, or even when calculable risks exist, nudges may not be needed. However, once we get beyond calculable risk, where we must rely on judgement and intuition, nudges are important tools to help people navigate uncertainty and improve their decision making.

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