Nudge People to Help Them Make Better Choices

This article is an excerpt from the Shortform summary of "Nudge" by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Shortform has the world's best summaries of books you should be reading.

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How can you nudge people to make better choices? What is the benefit of doing so?

When you nudge people, you are guiding them towards certain choices. Nudging doesn’t force anyone to do anything, but can help guide them toward better choices.

Learn more about how and why to nudge people.

Using Libertarian Paternalism to Nudge People

Libertarian paternalism seeks to reduce the footprint of the State and promote freedom in as many areas of human life as it can. One reform that would protect personal and religious freedom is removing the State from the marriage business—by making “marriage” solely a private or religious designation.

In a world where libertarian paternalistic principles held sway, the legal status and various material benefits—tax advantages, inheritance and ownership rights, and medical privileges—currently conferred by “marriage” would become the features of “civil unions.” In other words, any two people—gay or straight, of any sex, race, and/or religion—would be able to obtain a civil union from the state, thus reserving the various rites, symbols, and restrictions of traditional “marriage” for religious institutions.

Perhaps the most serious objection to a reform like this is its effect on children and/or the more vulnerable half of a marriage (often the female in a heterosexual couple). Those who mount this objection argue that legal marriage provides robust protections for these parties, in the forms of custody rights, child-support payments, alimony, etc. However, there’s no reason to think that these legal obligations couldn’t be maintained under a “civil union” licensing scheme instead of a “marriage” scheme. Between the legal obligations and rights conferred by a “civil union” and the personal and spiritual commitment signified by a private or religious “marriage,” no family will be worse off with the dissolution of legally sanctioned “marriage.” 

Nudges for Couples

The question of the official institution of marriage notwithstanding, libertarian paternalism offers new ways of looking at the old rules of people’s attachments to each other.

As we learned in Chapter 1, most people know that 50% of marriages end in divorce, yet nearly 0% of newlyweds think theirs will. This unbridled optimism often leads couples to forego prenuptial agreements, which could offer the opportunity for more vulnerable halves of couples to protect themselves. That’s where it might be ideal to nudge people.

The libertarian paternalistic solution is, of course, to improve the legal defaults and nudge people. In the absence of a prenuptial agreement (which would override any default rules), post-divorce custody and financial arrangements should resemble their pre-divorce form—that is, if one parent has been the clear primary caretaker, that parent should continue in that role, with financial support from the other party.

A libertarian paternalist would also nudge people by making divorce law simpler and clearer. At the moment, judges have wide discretion in divorce proceedings, and because individuals are both biased toward their own position and ignorant of divorce law, judgments often shock either party. With a more limited range of possible judgments—analogous to criminal sentencing guidelines, for example—and better information provided to newlyweds, individuals will have a better idea of what to expect from a divorce.

For example, a support-payment range could be derived from a publicly available formula based on the couple’s respective ages, vocations, earning potential, past earnings, health, and other factors. Deviations from the formula might be possible, but rare, and so separating spouses would be more inclined to agree to more reasonable terms.

Paternalism as a Slippery Slope

One objection to the strategies that nudge people: Where does it end? 

Tobacco regulation is a case in point. Information campaigns and surgeon’s general warnings have mutated into astronomical taxes (in certain US states), a rise in the legal age to purchase tobacco products, and bans on smoking in some public spaces. At least in the realm of cigarette use, the government has gradually reduced freedom.

Nudge People to Help Them Make Better Choices

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  • Why subtle changes, like switching the order of two choices, can dramatically change your response
  • How to increase the organ donation rate by over 50% through one simple change
  • The best way for society to balance individual freedom with social welfare

Rina Shah

An avid reader for as long as she can remember, Rina’s love for books began with The Boxcar Children. Her penchant for always having a book nearby has never faded, though her reading tastes have since evolved. Rina reads around 100 books every year, with a fairly even split between fiction and non-fiction. Her favorite genres are memoirs, public health, and locked room mysteries. As an attorney, Rina can’t help analyzing and deconstructing arguments in any book she reads.

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