Angie's Reviews > Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

Nudge by Richard H. Thaler
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's review
May 23, 10

This book was recommended as an introduction to libertarian paternalism in a lecture on behavioral economics by Nobel-prize winner Daniel Kahneman. Per wikipedia, libertarian paternalism is "a
political philosophy that believes the state can help you make the choices you would make for yourself—if only you had the strength of will and the sharpness of mind. But unlike 'hard' paternalists, who ban some things and mandate others, the softer kind aims only to skew your decisions, without infringing greatly on your freedom of choice". It was a new concept to me, and I wanted to learn more. Based on Kahneman's recommendation and a column by George Will in Newsweek, I had expected something a bit more sophisticated---more political philosophy and less practical psychology. Although the authors mention libertarian paternalism frequently and devote the last third of the book to ways to affect social choices, there is little discussion of the basis for libertarian paternalism. . This is not a criticism, but readers should be alerted that this is not a book about libertarian paternalism. Disappointingly, the practical applications of libertarian paternalism discussed were pretty obvious once the concept is defined, although the authors seemed to dwell on them much too long, as if they needed extensive explanation.

Nudge is really more about improving decisions of all types, as the subtitle says. Judged on this basis, if you are new to the subject of how to make or influence decisions, you may enjoy it. It covers just about all the most famous experiments and the work on biases in decision-making of people like Tversky and Kahneman. It is a fascinating subject, but the discussions are so protracted that even if the material is new, I would suspect you might get as impatient as I did. The type of person who is likely to be attracted to this book is also likely to be intelligent enough not to need the implications of each idea spelled out in the detail provided here.

Readers with a long-standing interest in intelligent layman-level books on how we make decisions, such as Predictably Irrational or The Invisible Gorilla, are not likely to find much that is new in Nudge. I think there was one study in the book that was new to me. The applications to government "nudges" were not clever enough to sustain interest.

A real disappointment was the writers' inattention to precision in their writing, which grew to the point where I became reluctant to accept their facts. As an example, in the discussion of the Medicare Part D plan, the authors cited the low participation rate when the plan was introduced and said it would have been even worse except that federal retirees and many retirees of large corporations were "easily or automatically" enrolled. On the contrary, federal retirees and many retirees from large corporations already have prescription drug coverage and therefore Part D would not even be appropriate for them. I do not know if the authors did not know this or were simply imprecise on their writing, but the reader will come to the wrong conclusion in any case.

George Will's Newsweek column is a good summary of the book that can help you decide if you want to try it. However, I cannot recommend the audio version to anyone. The reader has a pleasant, clear voice, but too often he annoys with a Valley Girl-style intonation, ending factual statements with a rising questioning inflection. He also mispronounces words such as "mischievous", "laissez-faire", and "err". Both of these failings I consider inexcusable in a commercial recording.
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