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Keeping Up with Sunstein!

Zeina Afif's picture

As an enthusiast and practitioner of behavioral science, I try to stay current with the latest research and papers from the field. I follow the work of behavioral economics superstars such as Dan Ariely, Daniel Kahneman, Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler, Robert Cialdini, and others. One thing, though, keeps challenging me. Cass Sunstein is a publishing machine! As soon as I finish reading one of his books or papers, three or four more pop up! 

For those not familiar with Sunstein, he is a law and behavioral economics professor at Harvard who co-authored with Richard Thaler the best seller, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. Sunstein also served as the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he applied behavioral economics in the design and implementation of regulations.

Since the publication of ‘Nudge’, an increasing number of countries and government institutions have started applying insights from behavioral science in designing and implementing new policies and programs. The World Bank World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior outlined the ways behavioral science can complement policy makers’ toolbox and the European Commission and OECD published recent reports highlighting the latest developments.  The number of books, research papers and articles on the topic have doubled since the book was originally published.

While other influencers in the field published a handful of research papers a year, Sunstein averaged 25 papers a year for the past three years, and two to three books each year. Around two thirds of the papers he authored were related to behavioral economics, while the remaining were mostly related to law. And in his spare time, he is a regular contributor to Bloomberg.
So as a 2017 New Year’s resolution, I decided to keep up with Sunstein and read all the books and papers he publishes in 2017 on behavioral economics, and blog about it here. I have to admit I have already fallen behind (major case of planning fallacy). Sunstein has published 10 papers and a book ‘#Republic: Divided Democracy in the Age of Social Media." So here we go, short reviews of two of his recent papers:
“Don’t Tell Me What I Can’t Do!’ On the Intrinsic Value of Control” 
A foreword for the upcoming Behavioral Economics Guide 2017, in this paper, Sunstein invites researchers and readers to join him in his quest to unpack the intrinsic value of control and its influence on people’s choices and behavior. He offers two reactions to control, ‘Lockean Exclamation’ (named after a character from the TV show Lost) and “Madisonian Exclamation” (named after James Madison). Lockean Exclamation refers to the averse reaction some people have when they feel their freedoms and autonomy impinged by outsiders (government, market, other people) while the Madisonian Exclamation refers to the preference people have to minimize cognitive and emotional tax. Lockean individuals prefer to keep control over decisions and choices to themselves and view nudging as imposing on their freedoms and dignity, while Madisonian individuals are content relinquishing control and delegating decisions to others. Sunstein explains that the rational approach to deciding when to keep control or relinquish it would be based on cost benefit analysis. However, he illustrates how for some people, they are willing to pay to keep control. Along with Sebastian Bobadilla-Suarez and Tali Sharot, he conducted lab experiments to test whether and in what circumstances individuals are willing to delegate choice. Their study found that participants were willing to even pay premium price and relinquish reward to preserve control. Further research is required to understand the boundaries of control and how to incentivize individuals to invest cognitive bandwidth to take control over some key decisions, and how to encourage those wanting to preserve control to delegate decisions that they might not be the best in determining. One interesting aspect to look into would be the role trust plays to influence individuals in one approach versus other.
Is Cost-Benefit Analysis a Foreign Language?”
One of the topics dear to Sunstein is cost-benefit analysis (CBA). He’s been a big advocate of CBA, discussed the topic in multiple books (Simpler: The Future of Government, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State, among others) and testified in Congress. While most countries and international organizations use cost-benefit analysis for deciding on and designing policies and regulations; it continues to be a sensitive and somewhat controversial topic when it pertains to topics that citizens are not comfortable with (for example: valuation of a statistical life), might not support (tax reforms) or fully understand (climate change). In this paper, Sunstein argues that CBA has a similar effect to thinking in a foreign language, which reduces the dependency on intuitions. Recent studies demonstrate that thinking in a foreign language reduces prominent decision biases such as loss aversion, framing effect and mental accounting. Known as the ‘foreign language effect,’ when individuals switch from their native language to another language, they are more conscious and deliberate, and less intuitive and automatic. Sunstein argues that CBA has the same effect on policy makers and can reduce the biases. He does caution however about possible errors calculating CBA due to inability to interpret or quantify uncertainty.
As I find myself already behind on my New Year’s resolution, I wonder whether I should change this series to, “Catching up with Sunstein!”

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Photo credit: By Matthew W. Hutchins, Harvard Law Record (Own work) [CC BY 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons

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Submitted by Renos on

You can do it!! Who knows, maybe Cass will eventually write a paper to nudge you to keep up!

Submitted by Jing G on

Thanks for the nice reviews, Zeina. Your blog just gave a little "nudge" to finish reading Sunstein's books that I have.

Submitted by Mark Sigrist on

I had never heard of the "foreign language effect" (i.e., "when individuals switch from their native language to another language, they are more conscious and deliberate, and less intuitive and automatic."). Fascinating to consider its implications within an organization like the World Bank, where many/most switch from their native language to another language in performing their work constantly. (As a native English speaker, I'm now self-conscious about the risk of making decisions too automatically or intuitively!) Thanks for sharing.

Submitted by Brigitte on

Thanks Zeina for the reviews. The topic seems very interesting. Keep it coming. Thanks.

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