Book Review: Nudge

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I kept wondering why noone recommended Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I thought Thaler’s other books were well-written and insightful. I saw references to Nudge in many articles and books. Usually, I read a book because it’s recommended by either a trusted friend or an expert I respect. I didn’t do that with Nudge. I wish I had.

At first, I was excited. The book is about “choice architecture,” defined as someone who “has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people decide.” Wow, I do that all the time. I write books, blogs, and marketing copy. This would be fun.

Next, the authors defined a nudge.

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

That seemed like something I could use. The first five chapters didn’t disappoint me. They’re in a part of the book titled “Humans and Econs.” Econs is a term that Thaler uses for the people in economic textbooks. They are perfectly rational, have perfect knowledge, and never get emotional. Econs are like Mr. Spock with a side of Watson.

Part two is about money. It’s about saving and investing and using credit and privatizing Social Security. I struggled on through it. Then I got to part three. It’s about health and health insurance and stuff. It was about freedom, but it didn’t feel very free.

If you’re thinking about buying and reading Nudge, let me break the book into three sections. Part one, about nudges and Econs and biases of all kinds, is great. There are insights you can use and eye-opening results of several studies. It’s worth the price of the book.

That’s a good thing, because it’s all downhill from there. Part two, about money, has interesting things in it. Part three, about health, is a long discourse on government policy. If you like analyzing government policy, you will find this interesting. I’m not, and I didn’t.

There’s another problem with the book. I’m writing this review in 2019. Thaler and Sunstein wrote Nudge more than a decade ago. That means that the material on health doesn’t reference Obamacare. The big economic crisis in the book is the bubble around the turn of the century. The Great Recession was still in the wings waiting to make an entrance.

Bottom Line

The first part of Nudge is about nudges and cognitive biases and such is worth the price of the book. It’s well-written, well-researched, and not dated. The rest of the book is a somewhat dated tome about government policy. I’m glad I bought the book. I learned a lot. I’m just sorry I kept reading long after I realized I was reading outdated analysis about government policy.

You can check out some of my highlights and notes from this book on my GoodReads page.


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