The last lecture of the last session was by Cass Sunstein. Sunstein is one of the architects of “nudge” thinking. He is a law professor, but he works with behavioral economists to develop his ideas and policy proposals. He has worked with the Obama government to develop “nudge” policies and his ideas are being copied all over the world, especially in the UK, which has a nudge unit.
Sunstein thinks of the policies he develops as “paternalistic libertarianism,” a label that could ruffle more than a few feathers. I think one needs to approach Sunstein and his fellow nudgers with an open mind. Even when their rationale makes you a bit uncomfortable, you can’t argue with the fact that it very often works.
The theory begins with the idea that humans are not actually rational beings, and that we have very specific biases. No problem there. If you don’t agree, read Kahaneman before returning to this post. Its proponents then look for ways to take these biases into account and bring them to your attention in a subtle way, so as to change your attitude or behavior. This might, for example, include instituting “opt out” rather than “opt in” policies for pension plans or organ donation. You still have the choice — and that is important — but you’re much more likely to let the “default” option remain. Other examples include nudging you to save electricity by letting you know how much your neighbors are saving.
And before you start worrying about a “nanny” state, remember you aready have one. At the very least, I think that understanding our biases and the ways that not only government, but corporations and random sites on the internet nudge us day and night can help us make better choices. At the very least, his ideas are refreshing.
What the nudge theories don’t tell us, of course, is who decides, ultimately, what the goals of those policies are. And I wonder what will happen when these theories become entrenched and dogmatic, as all theories of this sort do.
Before I close this guest blog, I need to say a few words about various things. The organizers of this conference hosted some 5000 people, including 400 journalists. Not the Mondial, but still a great undertaking, and they did it admirably. For anyone who is interested, the next ESOF will be in Manchester in 2016.
In addition to the travel grant provided by ESOF, I was priviledged to be a part of the Human Hotel Project. This project, in which conference attendees are hosted in the homes of Copenhagen citizens, was instituted for the climate conference in 2009, and revived for ESOF2014. The HHP team matched me with the perfect couple — Helge and Pernille — and they made my experience not only more valuable, but much more enjoyable. They kindly set up a corner of their living room for me and cooked me vegetarian food when I showed up on their doorstep wet and hungy.
Finally, I need to thank Wes Dodson of the ScienceBlogs team, who set this guest blog up for me and helped me with my setting-up problems.