Subject: Nudges – The fly in the airport urinal
Event: The New York Times publishes an article on nudges, 2009
What can a fly in a urinal in an Amsterdam airport teach us about human thinking?
An article published in The New York Times on this day in 2009 answers this question. The article “When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality” explores the work of behavioral economist Richard Thaler and his colleague Cass R. Sunstein. The work of these two men is built on the premise that humans are not rational creatures and that they often make decisions that are not in their own best interest. The antidote for this irrationality is “nudges,” changes to the environment that Thaler says “attract people’s attention and alter their behavior in a positive way, without actually requiring anyone to do anything at all.”
The fly in the urinal is a great example of a nudge, a feature in the environment that influences or alters our behavior or decisions. First came the problem of spillage in the airport men’s restroom. How might these men be subtly influenced to improve their marksmanship? Second comes the nudge: an image of a fly was etched near the urinal drain. The addition of a target worked, reducing spillage by 80 percent.
In their book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Thaler and Sunstein review multiple examples of how nudges can be employed to improve the physical and financial health of people, helping them to eat less, save more, and act more sensibly. Sustain and Thaler describe their mission as “libertarian paternalism,” the idea that public and private institutions can create environmental structures that help encourage individuals to make better choices (1).
One example of how nudges work on a national level is with organ donation. In the United States, despite the fact that over 85% of Americans are in favor of organ donation, fewer than one third grant permission. For example, when you renew your driver’s license, you must check a box to give explicit-consent to donate your organs. In contrast, many European countries practice presumed-consent, which means a person becomes an organ donor by default and must check a box to opt-out. In countries like Austria, France, and Poland, where the presumed-consent nudge is practiced, over 99% of citizens are organ donors. Often when people make difficult decisions, they don’t want to do the complex thinking required to make a decision. As a result, they most often resort to the default as the path of least resistance. As seen in the organ donation example, defaults should be an area of examination for individual citizens as well as governments, for they play an important role in the decisions we make (2).
Recall, Retrieve, Recite, Ruminate, Reflect, Reason: What is a nudge, and how can airport urinals and organ donation teach us about human thinking and decision making?
Challenge – The Existing State of Affairs: One phenomenon that relates to nudges is the status quo bias. Do some research on this bias; then, write an explanation of what it is and how it helps us to better understand human thinking.
ALSO ON THIS DAY:
-February 7, 1825: Today is the birthday of German zoologist Karl August Mobius. He conducted a famous experiment with a fish tank. In one end of the tank, he placed a pike; in the other, he placed some smaller fish. The pike and the smaller fish were separated by a glass panel. Early in the experiment, when the pike became hungry, he attempted to launch himself at the smaller fish. Each time, however, he failed, banging his nose against the invisible barrier. After several repeated, painful attempts, he ceased to attack. At this point, Mobius removed the glass divider. Although the divider was gone, the pike still did not attack the smaller fish; he had “learned” to associate attacking other fish with pain. Like Mobius’ fish, we humans sometimes come down with Pike Syndrome, allowing false assumptions based on past experience to limit our beliefs and our willingness to explore new territories.
-February 7, 1910: Today is the anniversary of the premier of Chantecler, a play by Edmond Rostand, based on an ancient French fable. The play’s main character is a rooster who believes that his crowing causes the sun to rise. The rooster’s misconception concerning cause and effect led some to call his error the Chanticleer fallacy; it’s also known as post hoc ergo propter hoc or “after this, therefore because of this.” Regardless of what you call it, this fallacy is one of the most common, since humans — like roosters — love to fool themselves into thinking that they can explain the reasons behind how and why things happen.
1-Sommer, Jeff. “When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality” The New York Times 7 February 2009.
2-Johnson, E. J., & Goldstein, D. (2003). Do defaults save lives? Science, 302(5649), 1338-1339.