this is groundbreaking stuff – a thorough and cogent argument for some guidance on life issues.  This is the ultimate application of the kind of stuff the cognitive engineering and decision making technical group at HFES works on.  Brilliant!

People have been ‘engineering’ decision making since the dawn of time.  As they say in the Navy, "navy regulations are written in blood"–something bad happened, so they wrote the rules to prevent it from happening again.  before you go rocketing off the catapult, every part of your plane is checked, all the red flags are removed, nothing is left to chance… because if something goes wrong, you’ll end up with a Martin-Baker tie … if you’re lucky.

You might be alarmed by the fact that on new planes (Airbus A380 for example), the pilot is only a ‘voting member’ of the flight crew–the plane is actually flown by the computer (a quadruple redundant fly by wire system).  Without the computers, the plane would be much harder to control, less efficient, and more susceptible to windshear, weather conditions, and damage.  Some military aircraft can’t be flown without computer assistance–the F117 isn’t a really flying shape, the computer makes it controllable and stay in the sky.

So what’s so bad about doing the same thing for real life?  Putting the fruit close to the checkout in the cafeteria is a good idea–it promotes public health, and is pretty painless.  And if there simply weren’t twinkies, well, you wouldn’t miss them anyway.

A little more insidious is Keep the Change by Bank of America and IDEO.  They won an IDEA Gold Award for their crafty ‘homer simpson’ outwitting system, and if that’s what it takes to get people to save, well, that may be necessary and prudent.  right now Americans save -0.1% of their income.  that’s right, a negative number.  so maybe some cognitive engineering is a good idea, even if sleazy and underhanded.


Roger Kimball decries this meddling as socialism.  Aside from getting his definition of socialism wrong, and conveniently forgetting the successes of the more paternalistic societies (if socialism is so bad, why do Norway and Finland top the world rankings in quality of life?), this engineering is already a part of your life.

that’s right, you’re already being nudged.

remember the last time you were in the grocery store or 7-11 or Duane Reade or any store for that matter?  notice the candy right in the checkout aisle?  it’s there, within arms reach, for you to just grab.  Clever, eh?  What about all of the ads you see on TV and bus shelters and billboards and on your screen right now? 

yep, your thoughts are being pushed around by Madison Avenue.  and they’re probably up to no good, because they’re just doing it for money.

So, the question is, who do you want to pull your strings and why, not whether you want them pulled.


One thought on “-nudge-

  1. Umm, your analogy with the military is flawed.  I don’t want to live in a military society with strict chains of command and unwavering rules any more than I want to live in a nanny state.  Because when you consolidate power away from the masses and give it to one corporation (which is all the government is; a large, unwieldy, inefficient, constitutionally-mandated corporation with lots of money to spend and little accountability), you lose freedom to make your own choices.
    Stupid, uninformed masses may be intimidated or worried about computers flying planes, but libertarians (including me) are not.  We worry about the people that programmed that plane.  Did they have the right incentive and accountability to do the job right?  Or were they in a government bureaucracy that doesn’t reward innovation or punish people who do a lousy job.  But of course in general technology is going to be a better solution than any amount of manpower in that situation.  Recently, Newt Gingrich put forth the idea that the air traffic controllers union could be replaced, almost en masse, by a sophisticated GPS-based system.  Economically and objectively, it’s a no brainer.  But it’s union-loving socialists that will block it from becoming reality.

    Keep the Change is a great idea (and I would point out, created by a private corporation, not a government) and I am enrolled in it.  It’s part of the reason that I came to Bank of America when I moved to Atlanta.  However, you know what I noticed after using it for 6 months?  It’s worthless on its own.  A pittance, really.  One $10 fee practically erased all my KTC savings I’d accumulated over 6 months.  BUT, you know what that taught me?  To setup an automatic transfer of a significant weekly contribution to savings.  Keep the Change did not make me save enough, but it did inform me so that I could make the decision to save more aggressively.  See the difference?
    Again you completely ignore the point that it’s better to educate people to NOT be nudged by devious marketing.  Not to substitute one devious marketing for another.  I see the candy bars at the drugstore and grocery store all the time, but you know how often I buy them?  Almost never.  Despite probably 5 visits to the grocery store and 1 or 2 visits to a CVS every month, not to mention countless TV and magazine ads, I cannot remember the last time I bought a candy bar.  Actually I can, the last time I bought a candy bar was when I went into a candy shop in Savannah and specifically wanted to buy some high quality stuff.  When I was a kid, I constantly reached for one and had to be told not to by an adult.  As a responsible adult, however, I’ve learned not to reach on my own.  You’re right, people, corporations, and governments are constantly nudging us to make all kinds of decisions that are in their best interests (and not necessarily our own).  But as concerned citizens, it’s our job to recognize and resist these nudges, and make responsible decisions in our own lives, not to turn to some flawed authority to tell us what to do.
    Finally, the fact that socialism works well in other countries is by no means a ringing endorsement that we should use it here.  In this country, socialism has a very poor track record, and capitalism is what has worked here.  I’m not against trying social policies to solve some of our nation’s problems, but that’s far from endorsing a socialist way of life just because it works in Norway.

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