Nudge

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have written a book entitled Nudge that advocates for a soft version of social engineering.  I have not read the book, but there is a short interview on Amazon.com that cites what I think to be most relevant:

Amazon.com: What do you mean by “nudge” and why do people sometimes need to be nudged?

Thaler and Sunstein: By a nudge we mean anything that influences our choices. A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front. We think that it’s time for institutions, including government, to become much more user-friendly by enlisting the science of choice to make life easier for people and by gentling nudging them in directions that will make their lives better.

And

Amazon.com: What is “choice architecture” and how does it affect the average person’s daily life?

Thaler and Sunstein: Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. Suppose you go into a cafeteria. What do you see first, the salad bar or the burger and fries stand? Where’s the chocolate cake? Where’s the fruit? These features influence what you will choose to eat, so the person who decides how to display the food is the choice architect of the cafeteria. All of our choices are similarly influenced by choice architects. The architecture includes rules deciding what happens if you do nothing; what’s said and what isn’t said; what you see and what you don’t. Doctors, employers, credit card companies, banks, and even parents are choice architects.

We show that by carefully designing the choice architecture, we can make dramatic improvements in the decisions people make, without forcing anyone to do anything. For example, we can help people save more and invest better in their retirement plans, make better choices when picking a mortgage, save on their utility bills, and improve the environment simultaneously. Good choice architecture can even improve the process of getting a divorce–or (a happier thought) getting married in the first place!

A NYT article explains a very interesting example of nudging:

THE flies in the men’s-room urinals of the Amsterdam airport have been enshrined in the academic literature on economics and psychology. The flies — images of flies, actually — were etched in the porcelain near the urinal drains in an experiment in human behavior.

After the flies were added, “spillage” on the men’s-room floor fell by 80 percent. “Men evidently like to aim at targets,” said Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, an irreverent pioneer in the increasingly influential field of behavioral economics.

Mr. Thaler says the flies are his favorite example of a “nudge” — a harmless bit of engineering that manages to “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.” What’s more, he said, “The flies are fun.”

So why mention any of this on The Design Matrix?

Well, I would think it obvious that nudging is essentially the same as front-loading. For example, reword some of those sentences and the meaning doesn’t really change:

“A school cafeteria might try to front-load the choice of good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front.”

“a harmless bit of front-loading that manages to “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.”

The Nudge approach advocated by Thaler and Sunstein is simply an attempt to alter human behavior by carefully front-loading situations such that they are designed to favor certain responses.

The key to nudging is that it is not determinism or predestination.  And it succeeds given a) a good understanding of human nature when implemented to effect b) large numbers over time.  For example, nudging does not allow us to determine that Ronald Heffer will choose a salad over fries on any particular day.  But it does allow us to successfully expect that a population of lunch eaters will choose salad over fries more often than they would without the nudge.

This whole approach to social engineering comes very close to what I am talking about with biotic design.  Compare.

Nudging: Choice architecture is the context in which you make your choice. Suppose you go into a cafeteria. What do you see first, the salad bar or the burger and fries stand? Where’s the chocolate cake? Where’s the fruit? These features influence what you will choose to eat, so the person who decides how to display the food is the choice architect of the cafeteria. All of our choices are similarly influenced by choice architects. The architecture includes rules deciding what happens if you do nothing; what’s said and what isn’t said; what you see and what you don’t. Doctors, employers, credit card companies, banks, and even parents are choice architects.

We show that by carefully designing the choice architecture, we can make dramatic improvements in the decisions people make, without forcing anyone to do anything.

Front-loading (from The Design Matrix and previous entries on this blog): Front-loading is plausible because, across all forms of life, cells share the same basic architecture and components…..Just as the researchers, as artificial selectors, set up their in vitro selection experiment such that it was rigged to find ATP-binding proteins, so too may life’s initial conditions have been rigged by the design of the cell’s architecture and the choice of which components to employ…..The original sequence, working in conjunction with the genetic code and the rest of the cellular architecture, biased what the second functional gene could look like……To sum up thus far, if we view evolution as a function, it stands to reason that life would be endowed with a tool kit of evolution genes. Such genes would interface with life’s architecture to facilitate evolution…..This interaction would set up a selection pressure that would be guided by the architecture and composition of the bacterial porin and the MTS.


Front-loading would thus take this strategy of nudging, a form of design,  and build it into the “choice architecture” of life – it’s form and composition – to improve the “choices” evolution would subsequently make without “forcing” it to do so.

Nudging/front-loading represent a subtle and sophisticated form of design.  If life’s designer was clever enough to develop carbon-based nanotechnology,  why think anything less subtle and sophisticated was involved with the design of evolution?

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4 responses to “Nudge

  1. Has our planet been “nudged” to set up an environment where humans can live? The cafeteria is a place organized to serve food. It is further arranged so certain foods are eaten. Without getting into the mind of the designer, we could also look at the types of life that were selected and how they influenced future life.

  2. Hi Tim,

    Look at it this way. Without double-membrane bacteria, there would be no mitochondria. Without mitochondria, there would be no eukaryotes. Without eukaryotes, there would be no metazoans. Without metazoans, there would be no chordates. Without chordates, there would be no vertebrates. Without vertebrates, there would be no mammals. Without mammals, there would be no primates. Without primates, there would be no humans.

    And yet it is not simply as linear as this, for as I have shown here, without trees there would be no humans (the eukaryotic cell plan had the potential to generate both trees and primates).

    Each of these transitions could have been nudged internally. In fact, if you stick around, I will connect the chasms between the first life forms and human life with a very interesting example of unfolding.

  3. OK but what if the double-membraned bacteria “devolved” from eukaryotes?

    Castoff mitochondria then “evolved” into a variety of prokaryotes.

    Wih a little nudging of course.

  4. Hi Joe,

    That would appear to be a plausible alternative, but it is not supported by any of the important details. For example, if that was the case, we would expect sequence analysis to put mitochondria near the base of the bacterial tree, when in reality, they turn out to be one of the tiny twigs.

    Apart from conventional considerations, I also make use of the teleological perspective. My hypothesis envisions the front-loading of the eukaryotic cell to appear after the original bacterial cells not only took root, but sufficiently terraformed the planet. It’s the terraforming that set up a new context that enabled the double-membraned bacteria to take up their new, front-loaded role – mitochondria. This was a revolutionary act in the history of life for many reasons.

    In other words, here is my telic outline:

    1. Planet seeded with single-membrane bacteria begin terraforming.
    2. Symbiogenesis creates double-membraned bacteria – terraforming enhanced, stage set for next leap.
    3. Symbiogenesis creates eukarytotic cell plan – stage set for next leap.
    4. Symbiogenesis creates metazoan body plan.

    The puzzle pieces are all falling into place, where symbiogenesis events are the consequence of front-loaded nudges.

    If, on the other hand, you think mitochondria front-loaded the appearance of double-membrane bacteria, the question to ask would be “why?” What was the objective for rigging things to generate double-membrane bacteria from mitochondria?

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