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Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein (2009), New York, NY: Penguin Books.


When you are looking at an advertisement and are compelled to seek out that product although two minutes earlier, you were not even thinking about needing such product – You have been nudged.

The buffet bar is aligned with an array of enticing foods, but you fill your plate with salads and other healthy items before you get to the meat and potatoes.  You have limited room for the good stuff and your plate is filled.  You sit down and eat what you have and due to internal thoughts about what others would think if you go up for seconds, you settle for your salad and piece of chicken – You have been nudged.

According to the authors, a nudge is when your choices have been architected through incentives, mappings, defaults, feedback, and structured complexities. A nudge is any aspect of the design of a choice that alters people's behavior in a predictable way, without forbidding anything or actually changing the choice at all.   A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.  For example, school cafeteria counters that want to promote healthy eating place the vegetables and fruits on the first row so the person has to reach over those items to get to the carbohydrates and protein.  This subtle nudge does not eliminate the choice of meats and breads, but by rearranging the food, the students are selecting healthier choices.

The authors stated that humans make choices using two parts of their brains: the Homer Simpson-like impulsive, gut response called the automatic cognitive system; and the Mr. Spock-like logical/mind response, the reflective cognitive system.  If humans are not taught to use their logic/mind decision making abilities, then they could easily be nudged into making gut responses.  Nudges are necessary in order to set up safeguards against our Homer Simpson predictable instincts.

This book was the shared reading for our College of Education Advisory Council.  We sent the book to each member two months in advance and asked them to read it and come prepared for discussions.  We discussed each component of a nudge during an overview of the book and then discussed examples in our personal and professional lives that related to the book in small groups.  The outcomes of the discussions were myriad. Some thought the book was insulting because it made the claim that human choice is orchestrated; and others thought the book was enlightening because they recognized the need to offset their biases.

I found the book to be intellectually stimulating and I could recognize both the pros and cons of the book's intent.  I would encourage others to read it in order to make their own independent, non-nudged decision.

Dr. Dwight C. Watson, Dean
College of Education
University of Northern Iowa