In today’s New York Times Sunday Magazine, there’s an article, “Cass Sunstein Wants To Nudge Us,” profiling Cass Sunstein, the director of White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA).
OIRA, according to the piece, has “the power to review every significant new rule that emerged from…[federal] agencies and to decide whether the benefits (in health, safety or environmental protection) were greater than what it would cost society to comply.” Cost/benefit analysis is central to the current climate change debate but it also very relevant to disaster preparedness decisionmaking. The article continues:
For years, Sunstein has wrestled in his writing with the difficulty in estimating the possibility of catastrophe — studies of insurance markets have found that we tend to ignore small risks until their probability passes a certain threshold, at which point we overspend wildly to prevent them. Our public assumptions about costs and benefits are often similarly out of whack.
We probably spent too little on air security before the Sept. 11, 2001, attacks, Sunstein says. Afterward we have struggled to calibrate the appropriate response. Likewise, the threat of catastrophic climate change bedevils even experts. How do you account for a small but real chance that the global sea level will rise by 20 feet?
The “nudge” in the magazine’s headline refers to a 2009 book Sunstein wrote with Richard H. Thaler called Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, which according to the Times article (written by Benjamin Wallace-Wells):
elaborated a philosophy called “libertarian paternalism.” Conservative economists have long stressed that because people are rational, the best way for government to serve the public is to guarantee a fair market and to otherwise get out of the way. But in the real world, Sunstein and Thaler argue, people are subject to all sorts of biases and quirks. They also argue that this human quality, which some would call irrationality, can be predicted and — this is the controversial part — that if the social environment can be changed, people might be nudged into more rational behavior.
The book describes a “nudge” as:
any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
I’ve long felt that changing public behavior on citizen preparedness requires the kind of smarter presentation, better integration, small incentives, and more rigorous attention to create effective and targeted nudges along the lines of what Sunstein discusses in his book. Instead of using nudges on preparedness, most government bodies have relied solely on ‘call to action’ pleas. As a top FEMA official underscored last month, it has not worked. In fact, I would argue that when it comes to citizen preparedness for the range of threats the nation faces, we still don’t even fully understand — let alone have applied — the actual choice architecture of the citizenry.