10 years of Nudge: Interviews of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein

One never really tires reading about behavioral stuff.

As nudge the book completed 10 years, here are interviews of the authors: Prof Thaler’s and Cass Sunstein’s.

Sunstein on what kept the duo going? They just loved each other’s company and laughed together. As simple and effective as that:

Like Kahneman and Tversky, you and Richard Thaler have had a rich professional partnership and friendship. Why do you think you worked so well together? And what have been a couple of your favorite moments from your collaboration?

We had, and continue to have, a lot of fun! We laugh together a lot. That is maybe the secret sauce. We also have complementary backgrounds. My focus is on law and public policy, with a keen interest in behavioral economics. He’s the most important figure behind behavioral economics, with a keen interest in law and public policy. That’s a perfect mix, I think.

One favorite moment was a lunch in which Thaler arrived, all excited about an idea he had, called “choice architecture.” I was skeptical and asked a ton of questions. I worried: Our book is about libertarian paternalism, which is clear and crisp (I thought!)—what’s this choice architecture stuff? By the end of the lunch, he persuaded me, and we were off to the races. (I remember this as if it were yesterday.)

Another favorite moment was a workshop we did at the University of Chicago Law School, involving a paper we wrote together with Christine Jolls (now at Yale). Thaler was the main presenter. I have never seen such hostility in a workshop. People were very angry at us. It got ugly. No one who was there will ever forget it. But it’s a favorite moment, still, because Thaler kept his cool throughout, and keep asking, in response to rude questions, about what the evidence actually said.

In general: we had lunch together a lot, just the two of us, at a little Hyde Park restaurant. Even if we never produced anything, those would be precious memories. (We talked just last night, and that was great, too.)

🙂 More power to both of them…

Prof Thaler:

Evan Nesterak: It’s been 10 years, a few nudge units, and a Nobel prize, since you and Cass Sunstein published the book. If you could sum up the last decade in a word or phrase, what would it be?

Richard Thaler: Am I too old to just say OMG? Keep in mind that this was a book no trade publisher wanted. Needless to say we would never have anticipated one “nudge unit” much less 200 or whatever. Every once in a while, one of us will send the other an email that amounts to just “wow.”

What misconception(s) of nudge do you still encounter that you’d like to put to bed?

First of all we need to vanquish the idea that “nudge = behavioral economics.” Nudging, or even public policy applications, are just a tiny portion of the research going on in behavioral economics these days. And the tools that have been used by so-called nudge units have relied on psychology more than behavioral economics. I try to get people to use the term behavioral science instead, which this publication helps to do! Also, not everything that nudge units will do (or should do) need rely on even broadly defined behavioral science. We should be using AI, big data, design thinking, and all the other social sciences, including tools like ethnography. My “make it easy” mantra is not specific to any one set of tools or research approaches.


He is also worried about sludge where people are using nudges for all kinds of bad things:

When thinking about the increasing influence of behavioral science on public policy and business, is there anything that keeps you up at night?

I worry a lot about what I have called “sludge,” which is nudging for evil or just making things harder. When I sign books “nudge for good,” it is meant as a plea, not an expectation. Bernie Madoff was an expert at nudging, as were all great con men. In my nightmares there are behavioral science units whose assignment is to figure out new ways to fleece customers, employees, and competitors.

Trust humans to always figure this out…


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