Easy answers and the American way

An airport classic overloaded with acronyms, but as Leslie Gofton concedes, what's not to like?

September 4, 2008

The airport book, like other pop-lit genres, knows its audience. Revolutionise your business and solve your management problems with this set of recipes and slogans, as you enjoy your club-class refreshments on the way to wherever. This is administrative DIY, bringing the wow factor to run-down corporate strategies and social policies.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book promises to transform managers and politicians into "choice architects" by reining in the excesses of Homer Simpson and Mr Spock - the "doer" and the "thinker" within us all - with findings from psychology and economics used to shape choices made in health, financial planning, welfare and so on. In classic airport book fashion, these are encapsulated in acronyms (the most painful is "Nudge" itself, tortured into an improbable mnemonic) and anecdotally illustrated (in the chapter "A dozen nudges"). "Libertarian paternalism", they argue, retains the hidden hand of the market while "nudging" subjects towards socially desirable ends. In the first example, a fictional school-catering manager addresses the problem of obesity among the children of the US by - wait for it - changing the order of the items on the cafeteria menu. Suck it up, Jamie Oliver!

The target readership is not social scientists, who will surely query the selective borrowing and rebranding of concepts, findings and strategies to confect this latest "revolution". Most will be very familiar from first-year social psychology courses - the social influence experiments of Asch and Sherif, the revisiting of the ghost of "hidden persuaders" such as subliminal advertising. This is apparently OK nowadays as long as the audience is informed that it is being used. Vance Packard, come on down!

This book is unmistakably American. Much of the background discussion relates to the centrality of free-market choice, and how and whether it ought to be guided into socially "good" directions. A brief liaison with, rather than a discussion of, the desirability of sub-prime mortgage lending, surely written before the present troubles, now seems distinctly awkward. Similarly, the failure to consider issues such as gun control while spending a whole chapter explaining how making the parameters of different health insurance plans available as spreadsheets on the internet would be a useful aid to older people, along with the success of an anti-litter slogan in Texas, will also seem somewhat eccentric to non-US readers. That this is the new, "real third way", according to a two-page chapter towards the end of the book, consequently looks rather ambitious, although both David Cameron and Barack Obama are claimed as converts.

The perennial charm of the airport book is its promise of remedies to awkward problems, such as the inconvenient and stubbornly irrational refusal by customers/workers/voters to recognise what is "good for them". Ulrich Beck has written of one such problem, not mentioned by the authors: that of resistance to nuclear power, recently overtaken in the public consciousness by the twin demons of environmental change and oil shortage. In response, politicians have quickly blown the dust off the plans for new nuclear power programmes, with Gordon Brown calling for its "renaissance" in a "post-oil economy" and Germany's Ronald Pofalla rebranding it "green energy". As Beck points out, the perceptions of the dangers involved are culturally and historically specific, and the choices involved are complex and not easily calculated. Sometimes, as he says, there isn't a good choice to make. The nudge fits very well into his warning against policies of "deliberate simplification" and the suppression of large-scale risks adopted by governments in the face of these problems. In an era of soundbites, slogans and spin, however, what's not to like?

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness

By Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Yale University Press, 304pp, £18.00

ISBN 9780300122237

Published 1 August 2008

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