by Patricia Houlihan
Published: June 7, 2008

Richard Thaler

Image by Beth Rooney

Richard Thaler's Book

A Little Help with the Free Market

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press, 2008), Richard Thaler, Ralph and Dorothy Keller Distinguished Service Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics, and Cass R. Sunstein


While he doesn’t overtly criticize Chicago’s revered appreciation for the free market, behavioral economist Richard Thaler has long contended that people don’t always act in their own economic self-interest. In Nudge, Thaler and coauthor Cass Sunstein of the University of Chicago Law School make a case for what they’ve dubbed “libertarian paternalism” — a philosophy of offering choices in a way that helps the average person pick better options for himself, whether it’s applying for a mortgage or grabbing lunch in a cafeteria.

Thaler writes, “In many cases, individuals make pretty bad decisions — decisions they would not have made if they had paid full attention and possessed complete information, unlimited cognitive abilities, and complete self-control.” But some people, from parents to bureaucrats, are in a position to influence people’s choices in directions that improve their lives, or nudge them.

Using research — including Thaler’s Save More Tomorrow plan, which helps employees increase savings by committing a portion of future raises to their retirement funds — Nudge shows how these “choice architects” can make a difference just by setting default options that produce concrete benefits. Skeptics may object to any government interference, but Thaler maintains that libertarian paternalism is “relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive.” He writes, “If people want to smoke cigarettes, to eat a lot of candy, to choose an unsuitable health care plan, or to fail to save for retirement, libertarian paternalism will not force them to do otherwise — or even make things hard for them.”

Nudge is laced with humor throughout. In listing rules of thumb, Thaler includes this one: “No more than 25 percent of the guests at a university dinner party can come from the economics department without spoiling the conversation.”

Practical Persuasion

Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive (Simon & Schuster Free Press, 2008), Noah Goldstein, assistant professor of behavioral science; Steve Martin; and Robert Cialdini


Getting people to say “yes” is one of the keys to success, but also one of the trickiest. In Yes! 50 Scientifically Proven Ways to Be Persuasive, Noah Goldstein describes practical approaches to persuasion, backing them up with scientific studies that can be used in ethical ways.

Drawing on social science research— some performed by the authors themselves — the book outlines how small changes in the phrasing of a message can substantially alter the outcome. In one example, they show how they increased the number of hotel guests who voluntarily reused a towel during their stay by rewriting the note card left in each bathroom. Rather than focusing on an appeal to help the environment by reducing laundry, the authors’ card stated that the majority of other guests recycled a towel during their stay—language that boosted participation by 26 percent.

Divided into 50 chapters with provocative titles like “Which single word will strengthen your persuasion attempts?” and “What’s the hidden danger of being the brightest person in the room?” Yes! is filled with advice for the “salesperson, manager, marketer, negotiator, educator, policymaker, lawyer, health care worker, food server, eBayer, or parent.”


Last Updated 5/14/09