Tom Peters "Nudges" Richard Thaler

Last Updated Aug 31, 2008 10:06 PM EDT

Etching a fly into the appropriate part of a urinal reduces spillage by 80 percent. Putting a salad bar at the front of a cafeteria improves people's diet. Both are nudges, and others like them, applied by policymakers, might help us stop using credit cards unwisely.

Those are some of the highlights of a Tom Peters interview with "Nudge" co-author Richard Thaler.

This interview covers some good ground. Peters doesn't talk too much, at least as this is presented, avoiding a problem many journalists have (myself included) and letting Thaler's answers stand out.

For instance:

Peters: why do we make bad decisions?

Thaler: Well, we're humans, and we're busy. Life is complicated, and getting more complicated. We mentioned the term behavioral economics and people might wonder what that is. It's a field that only exists because regular economics is based on an idealized economic agent, sometimes called Homo Economicus. In the book we refer to such creatures as Econs. Econs are creatures that can calculate like a super computer, never get tempted by fatty or sweet foods, never get distracted, and probably aren't a whole lot of fun to be around. [Laughter]

In contrast, real people, who in the book we call humans, don't make any appearance in standard economics. Behavioral economics is economics about humans. Humans are busy, can't solve every problem instantaneously, and get tempted by luscious desserts. Sometimes they need some help.

Sure, interviews like this are maybe just another nudge for people to read "Nudge." But it's a concise look at some of the ideas in the book, like 'libertarian paternalism,' the idea that government can help people improve their choices. And you get enough of a sense of the overall book to know whether you'd like reading the book.
  • Michael Fitzgerald

    Michael Fitzgerald writes about innovation and other big ideas in business for publications like the New York Times, The Economist, Fast Company, Inc. and CIO. He’s worked as a writer or editor at Red Herring, ZDNet, TechTV and Computerworld, and has received numerous awards as a writer and editor. Most recently, his piece on the hacker collective the l0pht won the 2008 award for best trade piece from the American Society of Journalists and Authors. He was also a 2007 Templeton-Cambridge Journalism Fellow in Science and Religion.