Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness

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For fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow , a revelatory new look at how we make decisions More than 750,000 copies sold A New York Times bestseller An Econ...
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For fans of Malcolm Gladwell’s Blink and Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman’s Thinking Fast and Slow, a revelatory new look at how we make decisions
More than 750,000 copies sold
New York Times bestseller
An Economist Best Book of the Year
Financial Times Best Book of the Year

Nudge is about choices—how we make them and how we can make better ones. Drawing on decades of research in the fields of behavioral science and economics, authors Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein offer a new perspective on preventing the countless mistakes we make—ill-advised personal investments, consumption of unhealthy foods, neglect of our natural resources—and show us how sensible “choice architecture” can successfully nudge people toward the best decisions. In the tradition of The Tipping Point and FreakonomicsNudge is straightforward, informative, and entertaining—a must-read for anyone interested in our individual and collective well-being.

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Editorial Reviews


"Fundamentally changes the way I think about the world. . . . Academics aren't supposed to be able to write this well." —Steven Levitt, co-author of Freakonomics
"[An] utterly brilliant book. . . . Nudge won't nudge you-it will knock you off your feet." —Daniel Gilbert, author of Stumbling on Happiness
"Nudge is as important a book as any I've read in perhaps twenty years. It is a book that people interested in any aspect of public policy should read. It is a book that people interested in politics should read. It is a book that people interested in ideas about human freedom should read. It is a book that people interested in promoting human welfare should read. If you're not interested in any of these topics, you can read something else." —Barry Schwartz, The American Prospect
"This book is terrific. It will change the way you think, not only about the world around you and some of its bigger problems, but also about yourself." —Michael Lewis, author of Moneyball

Excerpt. © Reprinted by permission. All rights reserved.

Common "Nudges"

  1. The design of menus gets you to eat (and spend) more. For example, lining up all prices on either side of the menu leads many consumers to simply pick the cheapest item. On the other hand, discretely listing prices at the end of food descriptions lets people read about the appetizing options first…; and then see prices.
  2. "Flies" in urinals improve, well, aim. When Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport was faced with the not uncommon issue of dirty urinals, they chose a unique solution: by painting "flies" in the (center of) commodes, men obligingly aimed at the insects, reducing spillage by 80 percent.
  3. Credit card minimum payments affect repayment schedules. Among those who only partially pay off credit card balances each month, the repayment level is correlated with the card's minimum payment — in other words, the lower the minimum payment, the longer it takes a consumer to pay off the card balance.
  4. Automatic savings programs increase savings rate. All over the country, companies are adopting the Save More Tomorrow program: firms offer employees who are not saving very much the option of joining a program in which their saving rates are automatically increased whenever they get a raise. This plan has more than tripled saving rates in some firms, and is now offered by thousands of employers.
  5. "Defaults" can improve rates of organ donation. In the United States, about one–third of citizens have signed organ donor cards. Compare this to Austria, where 99 percent of people are potential organ donors. One obvious difference? Americans must explicitly consent to become organ donors (by signing forms, for example) while Austrians must opt out if they do not want to be organ donors.

Most Helpful Customer Reviews

118 of 133 people found the following review helpfulBy Hagios on October 27, 2009
Format: Paperback
The good part of this book is that it contains a lot of practical and nonpartisan policy advice, such as requiring corporations to sign people up for the 401(k) by default and then letting them opt out. This is an example of what they mean by "nudge". You don't need to coerce people; since something has to be the default option you can at least give them intelligent defaults.

The bad side of the book is its poor understanding of human nature. Libertarian economists such as Gary Becker have been aggressively promoting free markets based on a mathematical vision of rational decision making. Needless to say, this vision could only apply to ultra-logical people like Mr. Spock - the notorious Homo economicus. The breakthroughs of behavioral economics teach us that real people do not act like Mr. Spock. This book does an excellent job explaining the major findings of behavioral economics. But rather than try to understand the richness of real human behavior, most behavioral economists tilt towards the opposite extreme. They pronounce humans as irrational and filled with hidden biases. Homo economicus has been replaced by Homo irrationalus.

That's unfortunate because the real story of human nature is far more interesting. Consider the case of loss aversion (pp 33-34). In a classic experiment which has been replicated hundreds of times, students were randomly given free coffee mugs. The mug-less students were asked how much they would pay to get a mug and the students with mugs were asked how much they would want in order to sell their mugs. It turns out that students with mugs wanted an average of about twice as much as the mug-less students were willing to pay! This goes by the name of loss aversion, the endowment effect, and the status quo bias. It is labeled a bias because a self-respecting member of Homo economicus would think about how often he drinks coffee, how often he does the dishes, and how many mugs he currently has. Based on this analysis he would put a price on a new coffee mug. That price would not influence by whether or not he just got a mug for free. But in fact this behavior is rational. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein conclude that "loss aversion operates as a kind of cognitive nudge, pressing us not to make changes, even when changes are very much in our interests." (p.34)

The method behind our seemingly irrational madness is found in a classic problem in game theory - the game of hawks and doves. Hawk and dove are different strategies people can use when they are in a conflict over a prize. The prize could be anything. For butterflies it could be a sunlit leaf because male butterflies have more mating success when they occupy such a position. For feral horses it could be a pool of water (Herb Gintis reviews the literature in _The Bounds of Reason_). Doves are sharers. When two doves see a prize they will share it. When two hawks see a prize they will fight over it. When a hawk meets a dove the dove will yield the prize to the hawk. A world of all doves is basically a communist utopia where everyone shares everything. It is also efficient because people maximize the use of available resources (prizes). The problem is that it is not what biologists and game theorists call an evolutionary stable strategy. It can easily be invaded by hawks. The first person to switch to the hawk strategy will get the entire prize without cost wherever he goes. Over time more and more and people will play hawk. That's inefficient because the cost of fighting must be subtracted from the value of the prize.

We have a problem. A world with doves is efficient but unstable. A world with hawks is inefficient but stable. The evolutionary biologist John Maynard Smith found the answer - the bourgeois strategy. That means "play hawk when you own the prize and dove when someone else does." A world of bourgeoisie is efficient because it eliminates fighting as effectively as the dove strategy. It is also an evolutionary stable strategy that cannot be invaded by hawks. That's because hawks are basically parasites on doves - they need the free prizes to offset the cost of fighting. A necessary consequence of adopting the bourgeois strategy is that people will value prizes that they own more than prizes that other people own. That's the real reason for loss aversion. It is not a "bias" but an efficient and stable strategy that provides the strategic foundation for the rule of law. The cost of enforcing the law goes up with the number of people who are trying to break it. If people did not have a sense of loss aversion then there would be more useful trades - but there would also be conflict and fighting over prizes.

That is just one example and this is already a long review but these kinds of lessons underlie nearly all of the so-called "biases" that Thaler and Sunstein identify. If you want to learn about Homo economicus then pick up _The Economics of Life_ by Gary Becker. If you want to about Homo irrationalus then buy this book. But if you want to learn about Homo sapiens then you will need to look elsewhere. I recommend starting with Gut Feelings: The Intelligence of the Unconscious_ by Gerd Gigerenzer. It is the book that _Blink_ by Malcolm Gladwell should have been. Books that talk discuss the hawk-dove game and other fascinating results out of evolutionary game theory are pretty scholarly. Games in Economic Development only requires high school algebra and you can easily skip over the math. I also think that most people interested in this book would enjoy Filthy Lucre: Economics for People Who Hate Capitalism. It is an accessible but sophisticated look at modern economics, including some behavioral economics.
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149 of 178 people found the following review helpfulBy Lena on June 30, 2009
Format: Paperback
I liked the beginning of the book, but it became repetitive and boring after first three chapters. It could be due to the fact that I generally agree with the major premise of the book: people should be "nudged" to make a decision that will make them better off. And yes, the nudge should be transparent and not synonym to manipulating people's minds. And yes, the government has my permission to nudge me in the right direction; if as a result I will make a decision (for example) to exercise more and eat less junk food.
(As a side note, I will be happy to have such a smart government. Or well, this could be an issue. But this is a subject for another book).
I got it, and I don't need three chapters to convince me. Am I alone in this?

I was much more interested in why and how our brain works to react to the "nudges" ("popular psychology" side that was almost non-existent), than in authors' rebukes to the opponents of "libertarian paternalism" - the political implementation of their theory. The other thing that annoyed me was the authors' attempt to be funny and coin terms, names and definitions that were supposed to make the book readable. Instead, it got annoying after the third appearance of the term "libertarian paternalism" and after the fifth time I saw the term "Econ" (used for infamously rational person from economics textbooks).

I had an opportunity to listen to Thaler's presentation on this subject and it was lively and interesting. He is a brilliant speaker with many great ideas; unfortunately, it didn't translate into the brilliant writing.

I would still recommend the book for the ideas of "nudges" in different areas (personal finance, energy conservation, marketing, politics and everyday life). However, it fells short on the inspirational side. You shouldn't be able to put this book down. But you are.



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