Nudging to Non-Distraction

Cass Sunstein has been one of the most influential legal scholars of the 21st century. One of the most influential economists of the 21st century is recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler. In 2008, the two got together to write Nudge, a book about a series of methods and techniques for influencing people’s behavior—without legal coercion— toward healthier lifestyles.

There are many examples of how simple nudges can lead to better behavior and better life outcomes. For example, it’s possible to influence whether students eat healthy food in school cafeterias  by rearranging the placement of the food so that the healthy options are more prominent and the unhealthy options less prominent. It’s also possible to get workers to save more for retirement by making saving a default choice rather than a choice that requires them to opt in. Nudges take a variety of forms, from subtle and seemingly invisible to transparent and educative.

Nudges have shown to be effective by improving outcomes in the context of health, savings, highway safety, employment, discrimination, the environment, and consumer protection (Sunstein 2013, Halpern 2015).

One Finnish academic paper notwithstanding, there has been comparatively little attention placed on the ability to use nudges to limit the amount of distractions in our lives. I think this is a shame.

I believe the following statements to be true:

  • There is more information now than ever before.
  • There are more sources of distraction now than ever before.
  • Those sources of distraction are getting more effective at distracting us.
  • Perhaps more than ever before, people are distracted and unable to focus in a way that prevents them from having healthy relationships and reaching their personal and professional potential.
  • Nudges are a relatively popular and effective way to influence social behavior.
  • Nudges could be used to reduce mental clutter and distractions in our lives.
  • It is worth exploring ways to do this effectively.

There is nothing magical about nudges. Nudges won’t solve these problems immediately or permanently. But carefully crafted nudges could help us design less distracted communities and improve our well-being.

There is ample literature about nudges and their effectiveness and benefits; I think it’s time to start seeing if we can apply this non-coercive policy tool to help make us less distracted.

This is a topic I expect to read and write about much more in the upcoming months and years.