May 29

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

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  1. asehelene

    I really liked your big think article. I wanted to make a comment on your last question there. I would suspect this is in part cultural (and perhaps even ideological). I’ve spent half my life in Sweden, and half in the US. People (well, my limited acquaintance, but also my acquired culture) in the US seem to be rather tolerant of the market attempts at influencing. Although there can be grumbling (influencing kids) i think it is seen as part of the game. It is your responsibility to resist (or not), and people are just used to it. Government, however, is not to be trusted. The opposite is the case in Sweden, where the upsells and nudges from the market are seen as deeply immoral, and you expect the government to enact laws to limit them so you don’t have to be on a buyer beware mode. Government, however, are doing alright. You may need to check on them and grumble, but they are considered a force for good against nasty markets.

    And, now I’m wondering if this can be testable (well, of course it can. I just can’t dream up a nice method on the fly).

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Thanks! The culture point is an interesting one and, I agree, empirically testable. There are probably a lot of interesting ways to approach it, though short of randomly assigning people to cultures a direct experimental test will be hard. I also agree that there is very likely an ideological aspect to this to, although culture and ideology may be difficult to disentangle.

  2. NaiveScientist

    Asehelene, you make a really good point: who’s intentions do we trust and who’s do we sneer at? Reading your description, it sounds to me that it depends on the moral climate where you live. In the US, limiting choice might be revolting, and capitalizing on financial opportunity is noble. In Sweden, regulations seem protective or caring, whereas things like marketing techniques are deceitful and greedy.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Agreed — the other question is what model do people have of the individual and her ability to choose freely despite influence. It seems that sometimes there’s some contradictory views — if a person can choose freely despite advertisements and other influences by private companies to get them to buy things, then the same should be true of influences by the government. In other words, if putting healthy foods first in the cafeteria makes people buy them, then putting the most profitable ones there should have the same effect — you can be against one and not the other, but you have to acknowledge that they both work the same way regardless of who is behind them.

  3. Hal Hershfield (@Hal_EH)

    Dave, I think this is a really interesting topic, and one that is worthy of further study. One of the big picture issues here is that not only do people think they’re immune from advertising, but I think they also feel that they know what’s best for themselves (and that they can choose rationally). I find this a bit odd because people can in fact be sophisticated planners, and recognize the times that they should impose limits on themselves (Rabin has written about this). My guess is that people would rather set their own limits than have someone else do it. But, seemingly, people have to first be aware of major societal problems before they’d be willing to accept the idea of nudges. Or, maybe they need better education about what a nudge actual is. In any case, a better job needs to explain how these interventions are actually useful (as Loewenstein has tried to do).

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      I think you’re right — people can be pretty sophisticated planners under the right circumstances. One bit of evidence for this is that people buy the little 100-calorie packs of cookies that have 6 or 7 mini cookies in them, even though these cost more, (presumably) in part because this stops them from eating too much mindlessly.

      One thing about the sirens and the hidden cigarettes, which is not unusual but certainly not always the case, is that by the time you’re in the situation of having to choose it can already be too late. That is, once you hear the sirens’ song, you’re doomed — so you have to start out not hearing it, and only then can you decide freely what your choice is. I suppose you could decide not to get anywhere close to the Sirens in the first place, or to never enter a convenience store that sells cigarettes, but that’s not easy and it’s costly.

      I also agree that making people aware of the problems and how nudges can help solve them helps. One reason I wrote the post is that because I think this particular point of Loewenstein’s — that hiding the cigarettes makes you more free — hasn’t been made enough. People also don’t really appreciate the hot-cold empathy gap, and so they put themselves in tempting situations with the overconfident expectation that they’ll be able to resist the temptation. We do it all the time. I have to put my cell phone away during dinner because I’m too tempted to check it if it buzzes, even though I know chances are it’s not buzzing about anything I care about. I didn’t have much space to get into the empathy gap in this piece, but I’d like to in the future (I linked to it right near the beginning).

      The other thing that I didn’t get a chance to get into is our inconsistent conception of the “self” and when and how we think of the person eating the cheeseburger right now as the same person as the fat guy who ate too many cheeseburgers over the years. That’s where I think your research has a lot of interesting things to say. We should talk more about it some time.

      1. Hal Hershfield (@Hal_EH)

        Great points, Dave! I really like the notion of freedom through restriction. It’s a tricky concept and one that isn’t necessarily intuitive to a lot of people.

        And yes, let’s definitely talk about the inconsistent conceptions of selves at some point. One thing that I keep returning to (both with research and with policy decisions) is the idea of the authentic self. Who is the true, authentic self? Is it the you who wants to eat a Freshii salad and not a Ditka’s burger for dinner (like those chitown references?) or is it the self who at dinnertime would really rather dig into a quarter pounder w/ cheese than vegan, low-carb, gluten-free wrap? I assume that people would like to think that the authentic self is the healthy/moral/upstanding/sober/nicotine-free self, but maybe deep down they recognize that that’s not really the case. I wonder if policies that limit the behaviors of the “non-authentic” self would be better received. How to do that, and how to decide which self is authentic, however, aren’t easy questions to answer…

  4. peter B. Reiner

    Åse: Testing the acceptability of nudges is indeed empirically testable. Shameless self-promotion alert: Gidon Felsen, Noah Castelo and I have a paper coming out in the next issue of Judgement and Decision Making in which we do just that, examining the relative acceptability of nudges (or decisional enhancements as we prefer to call them) that target conscious or subconscious decision making. We also have some unpublished preliminary data which suggests that Americans are rather antagonistic to nudges that are administered by governments, and we have experiments in development that compare government and corporate nudges more explicitly. It would not be overly difficult to adapt the strategy that we use in our empirical work to compare across cultures, and the case that you describe – Sweden – might make an ideal contrastive example.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      Sounds interesting, Peter — could you pass along a link when the paper comes out? I’d be happy to write a follow-up post on this if you’re interested.

      Edit: just arrived in my inbox, here’s a link http://journal.sjdm.org/12/12823/jdm12823.pdf

  5. asehelene

    Ooooh Cool! That is the kind of shameless self-promotion I love! (I can construe it as a present, and now the whole reciprocity thing is up and running #TeachingTooMuchCialdini)

  6. Stacey Finkelstein

    From a practical perspective, the beauty of the cigarette ban (vs. the soda ban) is that it can be implemented widely (the city is able to regulate most point of sale purchases whereas it was unable to do so for the soda ban). You asked whether people trust big companies more than government and I think there is an extra layer. Many protests around the soda ban had to do with the capriciousness of implementation without recognizing that the city government couldn’t enact more wide scale controls.

    Similar implementation issues exist with SNAP (food stamps). I had once informally talked to the NYC head of SNAP and WIC about a pilot program with decision “breaks” you suggested above (e.g., paying people weekly or bi-weekly vs. monthly) since research by Dilip Soman and Amar Cheema would suggest that breaking down such payments would facilitate self-control. Alas, the government costs of implementation are too high to even test whether such an idea would be effective.

    1. Dave Nussbaum

      That’s great point, Stacy — the truth is that interventions can be implemented at some significant choice points, like school cafeterias, etc., but the vast majority of decisions are always going to be happening in places that the government can’t possibly (and certainly shouldn’t) regulate. I think some really worthwhile thinking is starting to be done around helping people to self-nudge in a more informed, systematic way. That way you’re retaining autonomy, which is good, and you can “carry it with you” wherever you go.

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