Archimedes, McDonough and “Nudge”

Archimedes famously said, “Give me a place to stand on, and I will move the Earth.” I think about that quote a lot, along with two or three others, when I think about the problems of standing outside a system and looking down on it, trying to affect it – for example, in thinking about Gramsci and Althusser and the problem of trying to get outside ideology. If only I had a place to stand, then, then, I could See Things As They Really Are ™, and, Archimedes style, move them. The problem, as Althusser and others realized, is that there is nowhere to stand outside of the system, no privileged position or fixed point (to invoke another physics metaphor). Or, to reappropriate a phrase from Cradle to Cradle, “Away has gone away.”

Ok, so where am I going with this? There’s a new line of thinking, derivative from behavioral economics and embodied in the works of Thaler and Sunstein, called “libertarian paternalism”. Libertarian paternalists argue that because humans are prone to make certain decisions not so rationally, it makes sense for governments or other organizational authorities to nudge them in different directions while not actually taking away any formal rights – hence, libertarian but paternalist. The classic example is opt-in vs. opt-out decisions on retirement plans or organ donation (Kieran Healy has written on some of the issues with the organ donation example). Here’s the philosophical/empirical justification for Thaler and Sunstein’s move: 

‘NUDGE – Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,’ by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein – Review –

The main insight from which Thaler and Sunstein proceed is that no decision setting is “neutral.” Whether it’s a restaurant laying out food or a business offering its employees a list of mutual funds in its 401(k) plan or the government presenting different Medicare options, whoever presents choices must frame them in some way. And the framing will affect the decisions. Even “small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior,” the authors write. Some ways of presenting the choices may give a gentler “nudge” than others, and we may think some settings are neutral only because we’re so used to them. But whoever is presenting the choices will inevitably bias decisions, in one direction or another.

As a result, Thaler and Sunstein argue, many of the familiar arguments for why people should simply be left to make choices on their own, and especially for why government should stay strictly out of the way, have little practical force. In many important areas of choice that matter both to the individual and to the rest of us (for example, when overuse of medical care drives up our insurance premiums and our taxes), the operative question is not whether to bias people’s decisions, but in which direction.

So, I love the first line – no decision setting is neutral. There’s no away, no outside, no context-free room where the real, underlying abstract preferences can be observed. Every detail has some effect on our choices – even if, in Callon’s terms, we do not actively calculate using those little details.

And yet, the last line bothers me immensely: “the operative question is not whether to bias people’s decisions, but in which direction.” Bias from what? Those abstract, unobservable, cannot exist in any setting, preferences? If something cannot even in theory be observed, then in what sense does it exist? And if stable, abstract preferences don’t exist, then in what sense are you introducing a ‘bias’?

I feel like all of our langauge for talking about these problems is off. The basic realization of “Nudge” is that decision-making (or, better, action at all) is highly interdependent with the environment, and even slight shifts in the environment can lead to very different decisions. So governments and other organizations must ask, what kind of decision-making environments do we want to craft, given some desired outcome? The question is, how do we wish to exercise what Simon and March (I believe) called “unobtrusve control”, since there is no other option.

Ok, so to sum up – you can’t bias something that doesn’t exist. You can exercise power through relationships though, and indeed you have no choice but to do so. All of our actions are consequential for the actions of other actors, although some are more consequential than others. Hooray Foucault.

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  1. Note to self: I want to connect this discussion to morals, norms and values, maybe to argue that you can’t get away from them, that because there is no outside, no Archimedean point, you (1) can’t really judge your own morals, except against your other morals and values and (2) purposive action is impossible without them? Hmm.

  2. The challenge is that even amongst the educated class, there is such a slippery understanding of what you’re talking about here that to even suggest opt-out organ donation, or the design of welfare systems that ‘trick’ people into getting off welfare and into a self-empowered state of agency will inflame charges of Big Brother, etc.

    It’s moments of realizing the enormity of the task of making this world a better place that I wish for enlightened despotism 🙂 (With me at the helm!)

  3. I believe there was a lever and a fulcrum in the full Archimedes quote, but they’re not your point so I’m just being pedantic. Except that the lever and the fulcrum could be metaphors for the engineering of the nudge.

    Anittah expresses nicely Gramsci’s “pessimism of the intellect, optimism of the will.” We’re probably screwed but we do what we can. Althusser had a totalitarian mind – like so many revolutionaries, all or nothing, complete freedom or complete despotism – and it boomeranged on him to his and his wife’s destruction.

    Although everything is inside, the system is not totalized; it cannot be completely closed. The diversity of standpoints creates no big leverage for big change, and exploiting this is the hegemonic (unintended) genius of late capitalism. But that same diversity also guarantees that monolithic despotism is impossible and limited creativity or at least bricolage are possible. Hooray Foucault.

    We use bits of ourselves and bits of the system against other bits. To make the world better, perhaps, although the morals we use to judge better and worse try to be despotic like any others.

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