Wednesday, July 29, 2009

Remember What You Want

I'm reading a good book. It's called Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, and it's written by two University of Chicago economists (Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein). Economists who can write, wittily. The mind reels. I know. It sounds like it's going to be a tragic, self-help book that people buy in desperation, just to learn again that nobody's figured out what you need to know. This isn't that. It's really a book about public policy and the architecture of choices.

Take their first example: the food in a school cafeteria. We know that people will make different food choices based on where and how the food is presented. Moreover, some "paternalism", if you will, is inevitable. The food has to be put somewhere; abstaining from choice architecture is not an option. So, cafeteria designers can, without denying anyone anything, arrange things in such a way that it's easier to make good choices. Absolutely, choice architects can over-reach -denying us the freedom to make bad choices. The authors explore how nudges can make it easier to "be good" while expanding our freedoms.

So lately, every conversation I'm in is about this book. And I think about Peter Maurin and his "Easy Essays" where he hoped for "a world where it is easier to be good." The decisions where we mess up (based on our own value systems) are when the time lag between the decision point and the outcome is significant, or when the bad outcome is uncertain. If we got fat the instant we ate a jelly doughnut, or cancer from the first cigarette, or were guaranteed to die a gruesome death if we didn't wear a seat belt, then those choices would be clearer. But this is real life, and important decisions are sometimes hard.

The thing is, they don't always have to be hard; there's no particular virtue in making something artificially difficult. There's no less of a good outcome if we structure things so that the good choice is more likely. Sometimes the bad habit has become so concretized in our lives that we don't even think about what we might be doing instead. Maybe we just have to look at things differently.

How could I make it easier to workout more regularly?
How could I make it easier to do the studying and writing I want to do?
How could I make it easier and more graceful to care for the people I love?
How could I make it easier to..I don't know.... do any of the multitude of things I say I want to do but I'm not yet doing? Do I even remember what I want?

On a lark, I'm going to make a 101 Goals in 1001 Days list. Then I'm going to see if I can create little nudges, to make the right choice the easy and grace-ful (grace-filled?) one. If I get the nerve, I'll post my list. We'll see....

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