“It is useless to attempt to reason a man out of a thing he was never reasoned into”

Jonathan Swift
"The Democrats have moved to the right, and the right has moved into a mental hospital." - Bill Maher
"The city is crowded my friends are away and I'm on my own
It's too hot to handle so I gotta get up and go

It's a cruel ... cruel summer"

Sunday, February 08, 2009

Flies In The Stall

I have recently been reading The Tipping Point, by journalist Malcolm Gladwell. The basic premise is that large social changes can be catalyzed by seemingly small efforts, if done in the right way. While, as an academic exercise, the book reeks of typically sloppy journalistic style, it nevertheless hits on a vitally important, if not new idea. Anthropologist Margaret Mead is credited with the quotation, "Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world. Indeed, it is the only thing that ever has." So, the idea has a long history. Still, the collection of examples that Gladwell puts together, many of which are not intuitive, is quite instructive.

It turns out that while we humans often act irrationally, our group behavior can still be predicted if we understand what motivates most of us. A lot of the time, we are not considering the logical or long-term consequences of our actions, but are merely responding to the cues in our environment and applying our preferences to them. A great summary of that is work described by two economists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, regarding the principle of "nudging", how to induce people to act in our own best interest or in society's best interest by providing us with small cues that respond to our irrational impulses. A particularly intriguing, if silly, example, is provided in Thaler's work on male urination behavior. Seems that if images of flies are placed in urinal bowls, we "aim" at them, and the result is less stray urine to clean up.
Perhaps not coincidentally, Sunstein is President Obama's choice to lead the White House’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he might become "nudger in chief." Expect these principles to also be applied to Obama's legislative priorities.