Nudging us to death

by Russ Roberts on November 28, 2011

in Health

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote Nudge, arguing for something they called libertarian paternalism, the idea that government rather than forcing us to do the right thing might “nudge” us in the right direction via program design or tax incentives.

My biggest problem with nudging people via the power of the state is that the process would likely be corrupted via special interests. Why should we assume that the state will nudge us toward the good? Wouldn’t there be a tendency toward corruption? Nudging people toward what cronies want seems just as bad as forcing people to do what cronies want.

Another problem with nudging is that we don’t always agree on what is good. But surely nudging students toward fruit and away from ice cream is a good thing, isn’t it?

From Good Lifestyle:

Researchers at the Cornell University Food and Brand Lab, conducting a study on behalf of the New York Department of Health, discovered that the key to getting schoolchildren to eathealthier school lunches isn’t price. It’s positioning and presentation.

By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent. Other phenomenon that these food psychologists have noticed is that students who pay for their lunches with debit cards (rather than cash) tend to prefer junk food. The Lab director Brian Wansink believes that by only allowing students to pay for certain items with cards (excluding cookies, ice cream, chips, etc.), schools may be able to push students toward eating better.

These so-called “nudges” are part of a field called behavioral economics, which involves getting people to act in their best interest by playing on certain known behaviors and tendencies they exhibit.

Having people in power act in my best interest is a little creepy even in a case like this. But the bigger problem is knowing my best interest. For years, the government has systematically pushed the idea that fat is bad and carbs are good. But what if they have it wrong, as Gary Taubes and others suggest they have. What if fat is good and carbs are bad? What if the government has been nudging people toward obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Oops! Maybe it would be better to allow more competition in ideas and less nudging. I’ll nudge myself, thank you very much.

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Methinks1776 November 28, 2011 at 10:41 pm

I wonder if I’m the only one who, whenever nudged, just wants to nudge back. With a little more force than is absolutely necessary.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 28, 2011 at 10:51 pm

Jefferson was wrong about government governing best that governs least, government governs best when they are terrified of losing their jobs and being forced to live again among their “subjects”.

jjoxman November 29, 2011 at 7:28 am

That’s pretty much my default… and why I’m a terrible employee. Any order given was resisted until the reason for the order was fully explained and alternatives explored. I’m exhausting for managers.

T Rich November 29, 2011 at 9:23 am

I think, Methinks, that you may fully know that the end result of “nudging” is tyranny. Nudging is the pathway there when you know that you will lose in an out and out power grab or revolution.

My grandparents escaped from USSR in 1927, so my Pop is always the first one to point out where our current nudgaholics will take us.

Darren November 29, 2011 at 10:52 am

The difference between ‘nudging’ and outright force is merely one of degree. Policies always change. It is highly doubtful policies will change in the direction of *less* nudging and not toward more force.

Ken November 29, 2011 at 5:17 pm

“Nudging is the pathway there when you know that you will lose in an out and out power grab or revolution.”

Or, for that matter, even an election in which you slip up and tell the truth about what you want to accomplish.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 28, 2011 at 10:49 pm

“My biggest problem with nudging people via the power of the state is that the process could would likely be corrupted”.

Russ, Russ, its not that it CAN be corrupted, its that it IS corrupt. No free people should be “nudged” at all. The idea that some economist and lawyer know what’s best for you (the idea that you should automatically put money in an employer-sponsored tax-deferred retirement plan, is a crock) is wrong even if we assume the government has the best and most recent “EXPERT” information:

1970′s: Experts: Chocolate is poison, nothing good for you.
General Public: Chocolate is good, but too much-cavities and fat.

2010′s: Experts: Hey, chocolate has “cocoa polyphenols”, among the most potent anti-oxidants with significant vasodilative and anti-carcinogenic properties
General Public: Chocolate is good, but too much-cavities and fat.

Its a real short step from “libertarian paternalism” to statist fiat.

Sunstein shows his true colors with this quote:

“In what sense is the money in our pockets and bank accounts fully ‘ours’? Did we earn it by our own autonomous efforts? Could we have inherited it without the assistance of probate courts? Do we save it without the support of bank regulators? Could we spend it if there were no public officials to coordinate the efforts and pool the resources of the community in which we live? Without taxes, there would be no liberty. Without taxes there would be no property. Without taxes, few of us would have any assets worth defending. [It is] a dim fiction that some people enjoy and exercise their rights without placing any burden whatsoever on the public… There is no liberty without dependency.”

In his world, the state isn’t the guarantor of rights, its the author and the rightful owner and he sounds no different that petty tyrant Elizabeth Warren in her recent rant.

Greg Webb November 28, 2011 at 10:58 pm

Cass sounds exactly like Muirgeo – stupid.

Andrew_M_Garland November 29, 2011 at 12:13 am

The argument of public officials is always the same, “Without us, you would be nothing, so hand over some what what you have.” Here is the best analysis and counter-argument that I have seen.

Even if someone protects you, you don’t owe them everything. You can usually arrange a better deal than that.

One human doesn’t own another one because he supplies an essential service. We aren’t each other’s slaves. Our obligations of mutual cooperation are satisfied when the transaction is complete. One or the other can’t come around the next day saying he wants more. You might as well base society on the gun; give me more or I will shoot you. And, that is a good deal, better than being dead.

Government usually has a formal monopoly on force. That doesn’t confer the right to make the population into slaves. From time to time, governments have asserted this right, and it always ends badly.

Your Dog Owns Your House

Babinich November 28, 2011 at 10:54 pm

“By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent.”

Full tilt B.S.

“These so-called “nudges” are part of a field called behavioral economics, which involves getting people to act in their best interest by playing on certain known behaviors and tendencies they exhibit.”

Oh, you mean the manipulation of others for personal gain?

Don November 29, 2011 at 10:14 pm

No. In non-double-speak, that’s called “Marketing”. Any grocer could have told them that, but then they wouldn’t have gotten the millions of dollars in research grants.

Please have a care with calling something that is truly mundane evil. It’s not the marketing that’s evil, is the fact that its OUR GOVERNMENT marketing to OUR KIDS that’s evil.

If a school lunch counter wants to increase apple sales by putting them in an attractive setting, I got no problem with that. Similarly, I have no problem with McDonalds putting some nuggets in a red box with a smile and a toy in it.

W.E. Heasley November 28, 2011 at 11:22 pm

“…might “nudge” us in the right direction via program design or tax incentives“.

Nudge means external. Nudge means: “the way things out to be”. External nudge is in fact notional to the real time participant.

Internal nudge, differing and being significant.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 12:12 am

It still sounds like deTocqueville’s soft tyranny to me.

CalgaryGuy November 28, 2011 at 11:29 pm

Is the problem with nudging in general or simply the group doing it. In no way am I saying I agree with libertarian paternalism, but aren’t we being nudged all the time, isn’t that the whole point of the advertising industry? Grocery stores routinely nudge us to buy more than just the staples by the way they layout their stores, should we be bothered by that manipulation?

CalgaryGuy November 28, 2011 at 11:36 pm

Just to clarify, my comment wasn’t referring to Russ’ post as it clearly refers to nudging by the state, but other comments seem to be referring more to nudging in general.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 28, 2011 at 11:58 pm

Grocery stores routinely nudge us to buy more than just the staples by the way they layout their stores, should we be bothered by that manipulation?

Grocery stores lack the powers of incarceration, taxation, conscription and all other powers of compulsion.

If I don’t like X, I can go to Y, plus there’s tons of information out there to help you with being an informed consumer.

If you don’t like your government, you can go to well, no you can’t.

CalgaryGuy November 29, 2011 at 1:45 am

Yes, but the nudging with respect to product presentation and placement don’t involve the powers of incarceration, taxation (at least no different than before), conscription or other powers of corruption. If a private school cafeteria made the same change, how would you feel about that? Would you pull your kid from the school because they decided to do something a little different with the fruit?

LionOfSerbia November 29, 2011 at 3:42 am

The point is that in the case where a private school is nudging my kid in any way I dissaprove of, I can pull him out of there – when nudging is being done on a national scale, where one cannot escape it, that is the problem. I myself am nudging people a lot, like trying to make my girlfriend stop smoking – and she can play along as long as she wants to, but she can also tell me to go to hell.

And it’s not just the end user that is being nudged, don’t forget that the school itself (or a merchant) is being harassed here as well – one cannot decide for himself whether he will put orange juice or coke closer to the hand of his would-be customer, i.e. in the case where the state says that in schools fried food must be in the back and fruits and vegetables in the front, as well as not allowing for the fried food to be bought with debit cards, but with cash only. The child\student\parent\person is indeed influenced (or so it is attempted) by such regulation, but the middle-man, the merchant, is the one that gets blown by the hammer.

I never understood why they chose “libertarian” as a prefix, simply “soft paternalism” would do, there’s nothing libertarian about it if a state does it.

vikingvista November 29, 2011 at 12:40 am

“Libertarian paternalism” is an oxymoron.
Cass Sunstein is just a garden variety moron.

Cobacoba98 November 29, 2011 at 1:17 am

“By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting,”

Wow, make it clean, nice in appearance, and high light it and it will sell more?


Darren November 29, 2011 at 11:00 am

“Behavioral economics”? It used to be called “marketing”.

John Alcorn November 29, 2011 at 5:13 am

Russ, please keep fighting this fight. You’re not alone. For example, Robert Sugden (U. of East Anglia), Edward Glaeser, and Glen Whitman have responded systematically and effectively to Thaler and Sunstein on “libertarian paternalism”. One of your EconTalk interviews with Glaeser touches on this topic, if memory serves me well. Whitman has a sharp Cato Institute paper. Sugden is simply brilliant on this topic. See Sugden’s article, “Why Incoherent Preferences Do Not Justify Paternalism” (Constitutional Political Economy) (2008) 19:226–248. Here is the Abstract “A variety of recent arguments emerging from behavioural economics claim to undermine the credibility, and even the conceptual coherence, of the economist’s traditional rejection of paternalism. Indeed, some suggest that the incoherent nature of preferences inevitably implies a form of paternalism, since some basis for officiating between expressed preferences is required, and some preferences will be over-ridden in favour of others. This paper reviews and contests these arguments. It argues that markets operate according to a normatively defensible and non-paternalistic principle of mutual advantage, and that this principle does not require preferences to be coherent.” Please consider interviewing Sugden on EconTalk.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 29, 2011 at 5:24 am


Please keep writing, reminding the world what an idiot you happen to be.

Those of us who are adults realize that we are human and expect gov’t to exhibit all sorts of human failings. Instead of sticking our head in the sand, we constantly look for better ways to manage gov’t, making it more effective and less subject to our vagaries and imperfect knowledge.

You, having no useful role to perform in life except to try to draw attention to yourself, never add anything of value in any endeavor.

Look at the facts presented here:

By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent.

Now, what is your argument. That all foods should be in dingy pans, displayed under poor lighting (given the prevalence of obesity, that might be true, but wouldn’t that be feared “nudge” itself).

That is is wrong for gov’t to learn and do a better job (displaying fruits in a more appealing manner).

Beyond that, your complaint is really about science being underfunded and taxes being too low, for your complaint is that we do not know (yet) what we should be eating, in what proportions, and how often.

What is odd about this is that, when it suits your purpose, you argue that science and technology are our friend and that there will (for example) always be work and jobs.

Here, solely for your own purposes, you turn our lack of scientific knowledge into a political diatribe. Why don’t you instead support higher taxes so that we acquire sooner the information necessary for making better informed choices.

We all know why,Russ. Your pathetic

Russ Roberts November 29, 2011 at 6:21 am

Yes, I am a pathetic idiot. Thank you for your insights. The rest of you, please leave this troll alone.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 29, 2011 at 7:55 am


my task in life is to remind the world of exactly how pathetic you are.

you crave public glory but your crap will melt when exposed to sunlight

muirge0 November 29, 2011 at 10:19 am

your crap will melt when exposed to sunlight

(Standing ovation! Sustained applause! Shouts of “bis! bis!” “encore!” “bravo!”)

Ah, you BEAUTY!!! That was freaking amazing!! Words almost fail me.

Almost. But not quite.

When Robert Schumann first heard a composition by the young Frederic Chopin, he declared in a review “Hats off, gentlemen! A genius!” I suggest we follow the great Schumann’s advice here on this board and respectfully remove our hats to your impressive abilities with words and syllogisms. Like music!! Frankly, Nikolai, I’ve never seen or heard anything quite like it.

David Fish November 29, 2011 at 5:59 pm

You’re not your. While cleaning up YOUR typos and grammar would make reading YOUR posts easier it wouldn’t make them anymore tolerable. It’s amazing how you feel the need to respond to every post even when you have nothing to say.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 30, 2011 at 9:08 am

one handed, sorry

geoih November 29, 2011 at 7:09 am

Quote from Nikolai Lushin, Eastern Promises: “… we constantly look for better ways to manage gov’t, making it more effective and less subject to our vagaries and imperfect knowledge.”

That’s funny! I can’t stop laughing!

Adam Smith November 29, 2011 at 7:15 am

According to Nan E. State, Federal Plantation Mammy – District 1, nudging the world using your head can cause traumatic brain injury. Nudge safely, using federally approved methods.

Effective Dec 1, 2011, all children under age 18 are required to wear a helmet while playing soccer and are forbidden to head the ball more than 5 times per match.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 29, 2011 at 8:12 am

an interesting study

people, obviously out of sympathy, directed you to the site, hoping that you could convince Soccer to stop heading as being a part of the sport because of its injuries to you brain

But, hey, I agree with you. Real men stopped playing football 100 years ago when they started wearing helmuts

David Fish November 29, 2011 at 6:04 pm

Helmuts? As in Helmut Kohl? Keep posting so the world can see you for the pseudo-intellectual that you are.

Lionel from France November 29, 2011 at 7:17 am

The “behavioral economics” simply restates platitudes, mostly. And its supporters believe that people act irrationally constantly. As a result, they miss the real causes they never look.

Nikolai Luzhin, Eastern Promises November 29, 2011 at 8:06 am

they miss the real causes

and the real causes would be what?


if you same economic, you will prove my point that Don and Russ are engaged in a Long Con, spouting crap, hoping to gain the attention of (and funding by) the Koch Brothers (like Hayek before them) and Fox News.

I expect both of them to soon announce they are running for President, using Sarah Palin busiiness model so that, when then loose the nomination, like so many conservatives before them, they can sell T-shirts, newsletters, books, and DVDs, and maybe even swing a senate Alan Keyes (whom BTW threw his lesbian daughter out of his house) (so much from respecting individual freedom there).

this place is a joke

Sam Grove November 29, 2011 at 7:23 pm

How is it that you are so consistently and incredibly boring?

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 30, 2011 at 9:52 am

HIs practice is long and clear.

Tom of the Missouri November 29, 2011 at 8:10 am

Ah, alas! As someone who read and changed his life from Taubes’s scientific and nutritional insights a few years ago I am so relieved that the nutritional metaphors and examples in Cafe Hayek have finally been updated. It was frustrating over the last few years coming upon examples over and over again like, ‘ when we spend to much is like when we eat too much’ , etc., etc., I would once in a while attempt to nudge the discussion here and other places with a mention of Taubes and his insights to no avail. I am happy that has finally changed here. Keep up the great work. Oh, regarding Cass Sunstein, as far as I am concerned he his just another soft totalitarian with a new twist and in different clothes. Thanks for helping expose him.

Tom of the Missouri November 29, 2011 at 8:30 am

I am wondering what happens when the schools, the local school boards, the local school administrators, or anyone else fails to follow the on high edict from the Department of Education about the proper procedures for displaying fruit? Is their funding cut? Are they otherwise sanctioned or eventually arrested and thrown in jail. Ah, yes, nudging by the all powerful state, how wonderful.

There is no doubt Sunstein like many other academics from the left or anywhere else has many good ideas or at least stumbles on a good one once in a while. The problem of course is that he wants to force his ideas on the rest of us and use our money forced from us to do it. I just wish he would use his own money or the money of the voluntary tuition payers at the University of Chicago to push his silly ideas. Then they would win or fail in the marketplace of ideas where they should be competing.

Jon Murphy November 29, 2011 at 8:49 am

I must say, I read Thaler in my undergraduate days, and while I think the book is a must read, I didn’t find the arguments compelling.

That being said, I do like Thaler’s approach to paternalism better than the “Do It Because I said So” approach so often adopted.

Lucas Reis November 29, 2011 at 9:53 am


Denmark is the first country to implement a “fat tax”. If Taubes is right (and I think he is) there will be a decline in Denmark health in the upcoming months…

Nuke Nemesis November 29, 2011 at 10:09 am

Change “likely” to “will be” and it’s spot on.

Ike November 29, 2011 at 10:26 am

Why are Sunstein and the others so concerned about manipulating the behavior of children, when there is a more elegant solution?

End the agriculture subsidies that make HFCS such an affordable ingredient, and the price of candy and junk food will rise. Then the fruit becomes a more attractive value.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 10:38 am

Excellent Point. !


Oh wait, that would take power from the political class.

You have pressed an incorrect key. Please try again.

Jon Murphy November 29, 2011 at 11:21 am

One of the great paradoxes.:

With one hand, government condemns obesity and with the other it subsidizes it.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 12:10 pm

Yeah, and well, light ‘em if you got ‘em..

Fred November 29, 2011 at 12:15 pm

While they’re still legal.

Nuke Nemesis November 29, 2011 at 3:36 pm

And government gains power at both ends.

NL_ November 29, 2011 at 2:07 pm

Carbs are not necessary to survival; they are energy but do not provide anything unique. The body mainly needs fat and protein, and vitamin C (available in liver, oysters, and plenty of vegetables).

The common myth is that fruits are “healthy” because they have vitamins. People eat fruit because it tastes like sugar, not because it has vitamin A or whatever. Putting a vitamin booster into a milkshake doesn’t make it healthy.

I used to eat fruit pretty regularly, and I enjoyed it. But I’ve been low-carb for years and the only fruit I regularly eat is tomato. I lost over 100 pounds with very little exercise and my cholesterol is ridiculously improved (HDL > trigs). I briefly tried to keep fat low, but now I try to keep fat high. Fat is more filling than carbs and cheaper than protein. I know enough diabetics to know that fat is effectively neutral on blood sugar; protein raises blood glucose slightly and carbs raise it powerfully.

A nudge that tried to make me “healthy” by giving up fats would encourage greater consumption of empty and useless carbs – rice, pasta, wheat, potatoes, and starchy and sugary fruits. My insulin levels would skyrocket (I am not diabetic, just overweight) and I would gain weight. Insulin sucks sugar out of your bloodstream and packs it into fat cells. It also suppresses leptin, which tells you you’re full. Eating carbs is like asking to gain weight and be tired (the amount of food available for energy is reduced as the insulin steals it and packs it into fat). Since insulin makes you tired, it’s harder to exercise (exercise increases insulin sensitivity and allows you to get by with less insulin).

Meanwhile, depriving your body of carbs forces it to exit the krebs cycle and enter ketosis. Ketones don’t require insulin, so your body is able to make do with far lower levels of circulating insulin. Less insulin means it’s easier to lose fat and greater sensitivity to leptin (making you feel full).

But I’d also say that low-carb diets shouldn’t be forced or nudged on people. While it would be nice if the vast majority of foods weren’t stuffed with flour, starch or sugar (as they are today) the resulting changes to taste and cost would impart all sorts of effects onto other people who may not want or need the help.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 4:24 pm

Are you old enough to remember the pre nocta marathon tradition of “carbing up”?

Also, isn’t it true that we need a limited amount of carbs, just not the stuff and amounts that skyrockets glucose?

Sam Grove November 29, 2011 at 7:26 pm

A big problem with most carb sources is the nearly complete absence of fiber.

Tom Richards November 29, 2011 at 2:18 pm

I seriously wonder if Russ Roberts or most of those who wrote comments actually read ‘Nudge.’ The textbook authors don’t ask whether governments should nudge people or not. They point out the fact that governments, businesses, and all organizations are going to nudge people even if they don’t want to. If the school puts the apples in front of the candy, students will eat more apples, and vice versa. It is not possible not to ‘nudge’ people because you have to put something in each spot on the buffet line – you can’t put it all in front. If a company sets up a default so that new employees are automatically enrolled in a payroll deduction into an IRA, then more employees will save then if the default is no deduction. The company can’t not have a default – it is a logical impossibility. Their point is that given the fact that you are going to nudge people, you might as well give some thought to what you are nudging them to do. It is pie-in-the-sky to say that the government shouldn’t nudge people at all – it can’t be avoided.

NL_ November 29, 2011 at 2:39 pm

There’s a total difference in style and intent. Putting the high sellers in front of the low sellers may result in more people eating candy, but this is motivated by an attempt to give people want they want.

Putting a low seller in front of a high seller might be motivated by an attempt to draw traffic to an undervalued item. Example: putting ketchup near the frozen french fries.

But trying to make the candy harder to buy or harder to each is not motivated by trying to serve customers or maximize profit. It’s passing judgment on your customers and trying to manage their behavior outside the commercial context. Imagine putting condoms and lube behind the counter to force people to ask for it (in a likely unsuccessful attempt to reduce sexual activity). That’s judgmental about sex, which is outside the bounds of the commercial relationship most of us prefer.

Companies trying to present their items to increase sales is to be expected. Building pretty displays, pairing complementary items, putting new releases in prominent positions, these are all motivated by an attempt to increase sales and convince me to buy things. I still hold the final say and I’m aware of the persuasive game going on. But hiding candy or forcing inconvenient payment methods is motivated by changing my behaviors outside the commercial context. And trying to use subtle methods in the hope I won’t really notice is creepy.

Nudge isn’t meant to be better serve my wants and desires; it’s meant to contravene my own stated and implicit desires on behalf of some higher goal I’m too lazy or stupid to prioritize correctly.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 4:29 pm

“If a company sets up a default so that new employees are automatically enrolled in a payroll deduction into an IRA, then more employees will save then if the default is no deduction.”

Assume for a minute that you mean 401(k), because companies don’t enroll people in IRA’s (INDIVIDUAL RETIREMENT ARRANGEMENT). Why is this good to anybody other than an arrogant lawyer and economist with no understanding of personal financial planning?

PrometheeFeu November 29, 2011 at 11:32 pm

Well, self-reports do seem to show that opt-out arrangements make employees happier about their financial situation. That may not be a good reason to mandate such arrangements, but they do appear beneficial to the employees.

Nuke Nemesis November 29, 2011 at 3:39 pm

The path from “nudge” to “requirement” is a very short one. “Suggested” becomes “mandatory” in just a few iterations.

Ken November 29, 2011 at 5:22 pm

…and eventually is followed by “Let’s liquidate these irredentist (and irredeemable) kulaks and plant a new people on this ground swept clean.”

Li’l Nikki Luzha can apply for the job of trusty.

GAAPrulesIFRSdrools November 29, 2011 at 4:20 pm

“Imagine putting condoms and lube behind the counter to force people to ask for it (in a likely unsuccessful attempt to reduce sexual activity). That’s judgmental about sex, which is outside the bounds of the commercial relationship most of us prefer.”

Maybe so, but if I were a merchant, I’d expect my rights to offer only those products and services, in a way I desired to be respected.

There are other reasoms not to have intimate products in full view, and if you ever have kids, you’ll understand.

There’s money to be gained selling condoms-there’s also money to be gained in securing the shopping of people who’d rather not explain the funny looking balloons to a six-year old.

Don November 29, 2011 at 10:31 pm

Uh, that’s where most convenience stores keep them. They do so for a very practical reason: Condoms are one of the most commonly stolen items in their inventory.

Not everything is a conspiracy .

Seth November 29, 2011 at 4:22 pm

“By moving fruit from dingy silver pans in poorly lit areas to baskets illuminated by better lighting, the team prompted students to go on a fruit-buying frenzy, raising the sales of the healthy items by more than 50 percent.”

The wording of the statement raises some questions for me.

First, I’d like to know the absolute numbers. A 50 percent increase could mean that it went from 2 to 3 just as well as 200 to 300. I’d prefer to know it in terms of what percent of students bought “healthy items”. Did it go from 2% to 3% or 50% to 75%?

Second, what is meant by “healthy items”? This seems like a potential switcheroo. ‘We displayed “fruit” better and sales of “healthy items” went up.’ Is that saying that the fruit display also increased the sales of other items or did they just want to use a different term for fruit? If the former, I’m skeptical that the fruit display is the only thing that changed.

I read Wansink’s book, “Mindless Eating” and I do recommend it. He seemed to confirm a lot of things I discovered about my own eating habits and some tricks I have to avoid eating too much.

But, I am skeptical of the way the article is written.

kyle8 November 29, 2011 at 6:30 pm

Another problem is that we are frequently “nudged” Into bad directions. I remember when we were told not to eat eggs because they were full of cholesterol. Then we found out that it wasn’t the bad kind of cholesterol.

And we were told that all alcohol is bad, then we found out that drinking a little red wine might be good for you.

Then we were told that CFL light bulbs were great, till we found out about all the mercury in them,

The list goes on and on. Better not to have some know-it-all busybody jackass like Cass Sunstien telling us what to do.

vikingvista November 29, 2011 at 7:05 pm

“Then we found out that it wasn’t the bad kind of cholesterol.”

As I understand it, it is the bad (LDL) kind of cholesterol. The composition of eggs is more straightforward than is the physiological response of an average healthy body to their consumption.

Your point is still a good one. These political interventionists who wouldn’t know science if it bit them on their paternalistic arses are always claiming to have science on their side. And although it makes no damn difference if they did have science on their side, it still irks me to no end how they parrot that pompous claim. I guess it is in part due to the fact, humble as I am, that I, (as with others) have more knowledge and intelligence in the cerumen of my unwashed ear than most politicians and bureaucrats pushing me around have in their entire rectum-distending cranial echo chambers.

Chucklehead November 30, 2011 at 9:33 pm

There was a time when shrimp was bad because of cholesterol, then it was found out that HDL was good for you. Perhaps that is the source of confusion.

Ohio Libertarian November 29, 2011 at 7:57 pm

There’s a great part (among many) in the old Woody Allen movie “Sleeper”, at which he awakens in the future and is being oriented to his new surroundings by scientists. Two scientists are discussing how odd it is that he turned down their offer of steak and eggs for breakfast. “They actually believed back then that steak and eggs were bad for you!” the incredulous scientist exclaims…

PrometheeFeu November 29, 2011 at 11:27 pm

Well, nudging isn’t quite as bad as coercion… I mean, my freedom is much greater if the basket of fruit is well lit and centrally located by law rather than if the government mandate I eat a banana or prohibit all non-fruit desserts…

That said, a problem is that eventually somebody says: “We tried incentives and it didn’t work. Some non-zero number of people still have chocolate. We just have to ban chocolate!” And then I have to join the mob to burn that person at the stake which is a real bummer for everyone involved.

vikingvista November 29, 2011 at 11:47 pm

Nudging is coercion. In the absence of coercion, nudging cannot occur.

The most you can say is that you prefer one kind of coercion over another. But since coercion isn’t about giving you a choice, it really doesn’t matter what you think.

PrometheeFeu December 1, 2011 at 10:45 am

What I’m saying is that I prefer less coercion rather than more. Right now, the government uses the mortgage tax deduction to encourage home ownership. I don’t like that. But I would like it even less if they encouraged home ownership by throwing non-home-owners in jail.

As for your point that coercive organizations ignore our preferences, I’m not sure what point you’re trying to make. If your point is that discussing degrees is coercion is irrelevant because the government will ignore us, then I would argue the same applies to discussing getting the government entirely out of certain sectors of human activity. And yet, you don’t seem to have a problem with that. Also, I would argue that the government does care what we think. Elected officials do need to make sure their constituents are happy on the aggregate if they want to keep getting elected. Just because political incentives are very misaligned doesn’t mean they are completely misaligned…

PrometheeFeu November 29, 2011 at 11:35 pm

It seems to me the government already is nudging me. For instance. I can produce, sell and consume drugs if I want. It’s just that I get a nice little nudge away from such harmful activities when the feds bust down my door, knock me down on the floor and throw me in a small room for a couple of years. It’s not as though they’ve made it impossible for me to do what I want. It’s just nudging with batons, tazers and guns.

Xerographica November 30, 2011 at 4:29 am

We should nudge/coerce people into paying taxes…but then it should be up to them to choose which government organizations they help fund with their taxes. Allowing taxpayers to directly allocate their taxes would force them to consider the opportunity costs of their tax allocation decisions. This is known as “pragmatarianism”.

Pragmatarianism would help ensure the efficient allocation of public goods. It all boils down to respecting, recognizing…or at least tolerating other people’s values….

Chucklehead November 30, 2011 at 9:29 pm

Nudging is the core of the progressive movement. The question is nudging or progressing to what? The answer is socialism.

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