Odysseus Nudged: Some more thoughts

Odysseus and the SirensI wrote a piece for Big Think that came out on Monday and there were some additional thoughts that I wanted to share that didn’t make it into the original article. If you’ve already read the piece, then thank you – if you haven’t, you can read it here: Odysseus Nudged: How Limiting Our Choices Can Give Us More Freedom. Some of these ideas came up in a phone conversation I had with George Loewenstein in preparing to write the story; it was his article in the New York Daily News is what got me thinking about some of these ideas.  

  1. Asymmetric paternalism. That’s the term Loewenstein and his colleagues – mostly economists (Colin Camerer, Ted O’Donoghue, and Matthew Rabin) and one lawyer (Samuel Issacharoff) – use that is closely related to Thaler and Sunstein’s libertarian paternalism. Their paper, Regulation for Conservatives: Behavioral Economics and the Case for 'Asymmetric Paternalism', argues that it’s permissible to intervene in cases like the cigarette display ban when the effects are asymmetric. That is, when they help some portion of people make more rational choices and when they don’t impose more than a negligible cost on those who are perfectly capable of making rational choices on their own. They argue, as Nudge does, that even conservatives should feel comfortable with such public policy interventions because they do not interfere with people’s freedom to choose (if anything, as I claim in the Odysseus Nudged piece, they increase that freedom).
  2.  A further issue that this raises, which I don’t address in the article, is when is it alright to enact public policy that does impose a non-negligible cost on some people. For example, mandating waiting periods for purchasing firearms imposes a cost on responsible gun buyers, but has benefits for the rest of society. Preventing people from using food stamps on unhealthy foods restricts people’s freedom of choice, perhaps unduly. These are obviously much harder cases, and usually entail more of a shove than a nudge, but that may sometimes be the best option.
  3.  Loewenstein also argues that there may be a downside to the effectiveness of small nudges and their relative attractiveness to conservatives. Because some problems, like the ones I just mentioned, may require more than just a nudge, we may see less movement towards solving those problems, paradoxically, because of the success of nudges. Just as Voltaire cautioned not to let the perfect be the enemy of the good, Loewenstein cautions not to let the good be the enemy of the perfect – or at least of the better.
  4. mcbabyFinally, I’m curious whether people think that we are more ok with “nudges” that come from companies trying to sell stuff than government nudges, and if so, why? For example, in the past few weeks there have been stories about how restaurants use menu tricks to get us to order more expensive food, and this complaint from a 9-year-old about McDonalds “tricking kids into eating [their] food.” There are countless other examples – it seems to me, though, that people believe that they are immune to advertising and other influences and are simply choosing according to their preferences, so they are relatively indifferent to being bombarded by these sorts of nudges. Yet, when it comes to the government, people see it as more sinister.

 I asked Cass Sunstein about this and he said that he thinks it may be because people believe the market will deal with companies that use nudges inappropriately. But this doesn’t seem fully convincing to me because (a) the market doesn’t; it rewards companies that nudge well, even at the expense of its customers, and (b) the government can also be reined in at the next election. Then again, maybe my premise is wrong and people dislike both government and corporate nudges.

 I’d be happy to discuss any of these in the comments section or elsewhere.



"Ulysses and the Sirens" Herbert James Draper [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons.

"McBaby" via Adbusters: https://www.adbusters.org/content/mcbaby-1