Nudge- The Final Edition (Sunstein and Thaler)

This book is a must have for Product Owners and anyone involved in the business of designing the user experience. Nudge places a big emphasis in what the authors have dubbed ‘Choice Architecture’. The book describes in great detail how the human brain works, making irrational choice the norm and mistakes predictable. Although sheepherding people toward making the right choices for themselves may seem like an impossible task given our forgetfulness, high rate of mistakes and tendency to procrastinate; The authors walk the readers through a set of tools that they refer as “Patriarchal Libertarianism”. This term is used to describe a buffet of choices that is designed to use people’s inherent laziness and forgetfulness to lead them in a specified direction that the choice architect deems as a the best possible outcome for the individual. Understanding the power of choice architecture and knowing how to use it, can become a powerful weapon in the wrong hands, that is why Thaler pleads “nudge for good” when signing copies of his books. This book left me wondering about so many diagnosis that have popped up in modern times (ADHD, memory loss, depression). The degree in which these symptoms seem to be intertwined with human nature, leave a lot of room for thought in terms of these conditions could be in many cases only a label given to those who feel self conscious about something that is common place for many. I will not dwell too much into it, but I was shocked to learn that forgetfulness, procrastination and error making is the norm and not the exception.

Some examples cited as common human mistakes that lead to poor decision making:

Mission creep: it happens often, for instance when you think about updating the kitchen cabinets but realize that making the kitchen window bigger would be also nice; So would be updating the floor and moving that wall 6 feet to the right to make the room feel more spacious. Yes, that is called mission creep, it is perfectly possible to divide those tasks into completely independent projects, but for some reason our mind bundles them together; often leading people to abandon the initial plan to update the kitchen cabinets because the magnitude of the change now feels overwhelming. The logical solution is to break down each feature into different projects that can be phased so they become more manageable.

Unnecessary sludge: in almost any organization it is possible to find unnecessary steps to complete a task. Fill out one form partially on one website, but enter information on a different form, wait for approvals and fill out some more information, then send it to a different department. Often leading to people abandoning the initial mission to get one thing done, because it requires to do five things before getting to the end result, even if finishing the process is on their best interest. This mess is often the result of band aid solutions to outdated processes. The solution in this case is to seek and destroy unnecessary sludge by redesigning the process end to end with the end user in mind.

I am above average: The above average self perception is off the chart. 90% of people think they are above average when asked to rate themselves almost in any task, including driving, sex, even when asked if they are funny. However, we all know that statistically speaking only 10% of people are funnier than average, and about 26% of all drivers are rated better than average. The solution? Well there is no solution for this one but it can be used to lead the ‘false above average’ person towards protecting themselves from overconfidence, for instance by buying insurance.

Temptation: We call something tempting if we would consume more of it on a hot state. Temptation can best be described as decision making in a state of arousal. For example: When Sally is hungry smelling the aromas from the cafeteria, it is said that she is in a ‘hot state’. On Sunday, when she is calculating the menu for Tuesday, it is said that she is in a ‘cold state’. The salad that she planned to eat on Tuesday now seems skimpy and she feels that perhaps it should be augmented with some pizza. This is the perfect description of decision making in a hot state. Knowing our own decision making process in a ‘hot state’, can lead to designing strategies to avoid such a decision. For instance, eating the salad at your desk instead of sitting at the cafeteria.

Choice Architecture design:

Thaler and Sunstein wisely point out that while people don’t like to be told what to do, they not always like to make choices. There is such a thing as choice overload, because choice has a cost, expressed in time and thinking power. Furthermore, we tend to favor nudges over demands and respond better to requirements over prohibitions. In other words, we like the illusion of freedom but we are mostly novice in many realms to effectively exercise sounds choices. Therefore, we can benefit from default choices that have been thought out by experts in the realm. It saves time and thinking space. Remember that choosers are humans, so aim to make their lives as easy as possible. Simplify having to remember so many things. Make the default what is best for them or what would make most common sense. 

When designing choice, beware of reactance: aggressive defaults may be seen as ordered around and can make people do the opposite. Also remember that how information is arranged can lead to how choices are made. One example is the order on how two correlated variables are asked in a survey.

When designing surveys, beware of heuristics: Survey makers can accidentally create a correlation by the order in which questions are asked. For instance: In a survey, when students were asked to rate their happiness and respond how often they dated, the survey revealed almost no correlation between the two variables (dating and happiness). But when the question was reversed and people were asked to rate their happiness after responding how often they dated, people who were not dating showed a 76% correlation between dating and happiness levels. This is due primarily to heuristics. Heuristics are helpful for short term decision making but can often lead to bad decisions because of how the narrative is set up. What comes to mind quickly seems relevant although sometimes incorrectly. 

The previous section is a perfect Segway to the issue of framing which plays a big role in how people make decisions. Sunstain cites an example of a doctor framing the survival rate of heart surgery by 90% vs. explaining that the death rate for the same procedure is 10%. What happens in the shocked mind of the patient is that they immediately identify themselves with the population described. Studies conducted on how the recommendation was framed reveled that people who were offered the procedure explaining the survival rate, chose to go through with the procedure, although the death rate is still 10%. The trick is that they felt identified with being one of the survivors and not one of the potential casualties.

The authors go really deep into the many mistakes and shortcuts that we take in decision making. This is a great book to gain self awareness of our own shortcomings and opportunities to design personal strategies for better decision outcomes. Of course it is a great read for anyone in the business of product design, marketing, organizational management and public policy making.

What did you think about this book? Leave your comments below.

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