I found Thaler very engaging and I loved his theme: that we can support a lot of changes in society with quite minimal interventions. Often people don’t need to be made to do things – they actually want to, we just need to make it easy.
The best example of a nudge from his book is the US state that struggled to get people to complete their tax returns. The usual cajoling, fees and incentives were relatively ineffective compared to the eventual solution. That was simply to publicise the number of people who had actually done their returns.
He also highlights the significance of default settings: if you say people have to opt-in to a pension scheme, their participation will be way lower than if you make it an opt-out scheme.
Thayer was followed onstage by Julian Le Grand of the LSE. He recounted how he tried out this defaults theory by proposing that we combat smoking by requiring smokers to obtain a permit to buy cigarettes. He appeared surprised that this didn’t go down very well with Joe and Joanna Public. I suppose one man’s nudge is another man’s stick in the eye and knee in the groin.
For me, Nudge is a reminder that the world is complex and non-linear, and that obvious solutions don’t always work. It’s also a reminder of the benefits of a little humility. We should not be too surprised that our little schemes for world domination won’t always work.
And on the subject of subtely, here is the inevitable Python clip.