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Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the…
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Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice

by Cass R. Sunstein

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From those wonderful people who brought you Nudge…

This is the newest iteration in the ever expanding franchise of Nudge. It is a direct derivative, so if you’ve read Nudge, you can breeze through this. This one is all about behavior modification through getting people on the right services by default (if they won’t make their own choice).

Sunstein poses a lot of philosophical reasons why people choose not to choose, but annoyingly, he completely misses the most obvious one: when offered choices not relevant to the current activity, people perceive them as a distraction, an irritant, a delay of gratification. They hate that. They try to get past them as fast as possible. If not choosing is an option, that’s the clear choice. Organ donation when getting a driver’s license, 401(k) mutual fund choices when signing up for employment, donating to a political party on the income tax form (all Sunstein’s own examples) – are a pain. There is no mystery why people choose not to choose. Yet that never occurs to him, and that’s what this book is about.

Risk is missing too. Sunstein uses the proxy of retirement plans throughout the book. He cites endless studies to get people to choose a plan, and also to assess the value they give the default plan if they make no choice. Yet he gives no consideration to the case where there is actual risk (You can always change your mind later, so no choice is risk-free). If the instructions said whatever plan you choose now will be yours for life and you will not be able to change it after today …. people would look more closely at the choices. I think.

He also explores decisions people make when they can be bought off with a choice (as opposed to paying for one). But we know people always value something they own more highly than the market price. They think they are smarter and in a higher group than they are (or better judges, drivers, spouses or parents). It should be no surprise when given a higher baseline salary or perks, they will not give them up for anything like what they would offer to actually purchase them. It’s the age-old difference between bid and ask. This is no discovery, but Sunstein treats it as an important revelation from multiple in-depth studies.

He concludes with the usual tiresome future in which “they” know everything about you. They customize the defaults so they are the perfect choices for you, and you never have to think about a thing. Real people, who actually know you well, give you Christmas presents you hate, year after year. 60-80% get returned. Do you really want your healthcare options chosen by the new insurance company from files it bought from eHarmony, Amazon and Fitbit?
Sunstein’s bright future is a subscription life, where online services send you the same groceries every week unordered, where booksellers send you new books unordered, where your votes are automatically taken from the default you agreed to (or didn’t choose). No need to shop for bargains. Forget about coupons. You don’t need to know who the candidates are. It’s much more efficient and less costly this way. Sunstein says personal default non choices “promise to make our lives not only simpler, healthier and longer, but also more free.”

Choosing Not To Choose does not demonstrate that.

David Wineberg ( )
  DavidWineberg | Jan 15, 2015 |
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0190231696, Hardcover)

Our ability to make choices is fundamental to our sense of ourselves as human beings, and essential to the political values of freedom-protecting nations. Whom we love; where we work; how we spend our time; what we buy; such choices define us in the eyes of ourselves and others, and much blood and ink has been spilt to establish and protect our rights to make them freely.

Choice can also be a burden. Our cognitive capacity to research and make the best decisions is limited, so every active choice comes at a cost. In modern life the requirement to make active choices can often be overwhelming. So, across broad areas of our lives, from health plans to energy suppliers, many of us choose not to choose. By following our default options, we save ourselves the costs of making active choices. By setting those options, governments and corporations dictate the outcomes for when we decide by default. This is among the most significant ways in which they effect social change, yet we are just beginning to understand the power and impact of default rules. Many central questions remain unanswered: When should governments set such defaults, and when should they insist on active choices? How should such defaults be made? What makes some defaults successful while others fail?

Cass R. Sunstein has long been at the forefront of developing public policy and regulation to use government power to encourage people to make better decisions. In this major new book, Choosing Not to Choose, he presents his most complete argument yet for how we should understand the value of choice, and when and how we should enable people to choose not to choose.

The onset of big data gives corporations and governments the power to make ever more sophisticated decisions on our behalf, defaulting us to buy the goods we predictably want, or vote for the parties and policies we predictably support. As consumers we are starting to embrace the benefits this can bring. But should we? What will be the long-term effects of limiting our active choices on our agency? And can such personalized defaults be imported from the marketplace to politics and the law? Confronting the challenging future of data-driven decision-making, Sunstein presents a manifesto for how personalized defaults should be used to enhance, rather than restrict, our freedom and well-being.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:14:30 -0400)

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