Happy Thaler-Day

March 23, 2009 by
Filed under: Education Matters 

As well as being my Mum’s birthday (which is much more important), you’d be forgiven for thinking that today was National Richard Thaler Day in the UK.

Kicking off with Andrew Marr on Start the Week, the author of Nudge went on to give a lunchtime seminar at the Strategy Unit, and a talk at the LSE, doubtless with a few other opportunities in between. This tour coincides with the paperback release of Nudge (he spoke at the RSA in July last year when the hardback was launched in the UK).

I went along to the lunchtime seminar at the Strategy Unit, where a packed room of policy-types listened to an overview of behavioural economics, “choice architecture” and “libertarian paternalism”, ending in a few words on the financial crisis and the irrationality of CEOs and boards. By and large, there was little new since last year’s talks, but the seminar did get more interesting when questions were invited from the floor.

With regard to “everyday” nudging (as opposed to complicated financial stuff and information disclosure), there was a healthy amount of skepticism from some people, with some good points around the problem of paternalism (“do governments really know what’s best?”) and values (“what value system are we talking about here?”). Overall I felt that most people were interested in behavioural economics, but could see profound problems in using it to come up with choice architecture.

I asked a question about whether it was always possible to preserve freedom of choice when people may not understand the underlying psychology behind a nudge. Thaler responded with a story about a road on his route to work with a dangerous bend, across which the authorities had painted lines which get closer together as the bend approaches, making the driver think they are travelling faster than they really are, and encourage them to slow down. In general, he said, John Rawls’ publicity principle is helpful; and governments shouldn’t nudge people to do something they wouldn’t be happy to openly announce.

I also asked for a comment on the shift between the hardback cover (on the left, above) to the apparently demonic (I meant it in a cheeky, Alessi-style obviously) paperback on the right, but he delegated this question to the representative from Penguin, who declined to comment…