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Nudging the President

Author: Micah Zenko, Douglas Dillon Fellow
December 18, 2012
Foreign Policy

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If you clicked on a link to read this column, you were likely influenced by a combination of factors: the title (often misleading or sensationalist), an accompanying picture (I bet someone in a uniform), where it appeared on the FP homepage (top is better than bottom), or how it was described in a tweet (short and pithy helps). Advertisers, psychologists, and behavioral economists have long been aware that the social construction of options influences both the choices of decision-makers and their outcomes. Because it is impossible to make decisions in a vacuum, free from external influences, we rely on shortcuts like recommendations from friends, historical precedents, name recognition, or simply cool pictures.

How choices are framed for decision-makers can have negative or positive repercussions -- assuming that the person has some ranking of values or preferences. In their landmark 1981 paper, "The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice," psychologists Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman presented social science experiments that found people reversed their preferences based on manipulative "variations in the framing of acts, contingencies, and outcomes." In the book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein endorsed the role of "choice architects," engaged in libertarian paternalism that preference certain decisions by, for example, arranging healthy foods prominently at eye level in a school cafeteria to make it more likely children choose to eat them.

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