Nudges, Agency, and Abstraction: A Reply to Critics
This essay has three general themes. The first involves the claim that nudging threatens human agency. My basic response is that human agency is fully retained (because nudges do not compromise freedom of choice) and that agency is always exercised in the context of some kind of choice architecture. The second theme involves the importance of having a sufficiently capacious sense of the category of nudges, and a full appreciation of the differences among them. Some nudges either enlist or combat behavioral biases but others do not, and even among those that do enlist or combat such biases, there are significant differences. The third general theme is the need to bring various concerns (including ethical ones) in close contact with particular examples. A legitimate point about default rules may not apply to warnings or reminders. An ethical objection to the use of social norms may not apply to information disclosure. Here as elsewhere, abstraction can be a trap. We continue to learn about the relevant ethical issues, about likely public reactions to nudging, and about differences across cultures and nations. Future progress will depend on a high level of concreteness, perhaps especially in dealing with the vexing problem of time-inconsistency.
KeywordsChoice Architect Default Rule Automatic Enrollment Time Inconsistency Active Choose
I am grateful to Adrien Barton, Tyler Cowen, Elizabeth Emens, Till Grune-Yanoff, Daniel Kahneman, Lucia Reisch, and Richard Thaler for extremely valuable comments and discussions.
Conflict of Interest
The author declares that he has no conflict of interest.
- Allcott, H. and C.R. Sunstein. 2015. Regulating Internalities. Journal of Policy Analysis and Management (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Barnhill, A. 2014. What is manipulation? In Manipulation: theory and practice, ed. M. Weber and C. Coons, 51–72. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Bhargava, S., G. Loewenstein and J. Sydnor. 2015. Do employees make sensible health plan decisions? Evidence from a menu with dominated options (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Bubb, R., and R.H. Pildes. 2014. How behavioral economics trims its sails and why. Harvard Law Review 127(6): 1593–1678.Google Scholar
- Cadena, X. and A. Schoar. 2011. Remembering to pay? Reminders vs. financial incentives for loan payments. National Bureau of Economics, Working Paper No. 17020.Google Scholar
- Felsen, G., N. Castelo, and P. Reiner. 2013. Decisional enhancement and autonomy: public attitudes toward overt and covert nudges. Judgment and Decision Making 8(3): 202–213.Google Scholar
- Halpern, D. 2015. The nudge unit. London: W.H. Allen (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Sharot, T. 2011. The optimism bias: a tour of the irrationally positive brain. New York: Knopf Doubleday.Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R. 2013. Simpler: the future of government. New York: Simon & Schuster.Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R. 2014. Why nudge?: the politics of libertarian paternalism. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R. 2015. Nudging and choice architecture: ethical considerations. Yale Journal on Regulation (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R. 2015b. Choosing not to choose. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R. 2015 Fifty shades of manipulation. Journal of Behavioral Marketing (forthcoming).Google Scholar
- Sunstein, C.R., and L.A. Reisch. 2014. Automatically green: behavioral economics and environmental protection. Harvard Environmental Law Review 38(1): 127–158.Google Scholar
- Thaler, R.H., and C.R. Sunstein. 2008. Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.Google Scholar
- Ullmann-Margalit, E. 1977. The emergence of norms. Oxford: Oxford University Press.Google Scholar
- Willis, L. 2013. When nudges fail. University of Chicago Law Review 80: 1157–1227.Google Scholar
- York, B.N. and S. Loeb. 2014. One step at a time: the effects of an early literacy text messaging program for parents of preschoolers. National Bureau of Economics. Working Paper No. 20659.Google Scholar