Give Yourself a Nudge

Why is there such a gap between what human beings actually do, as opposed to what we know would be best? And how can we get our actions better aligned with our intentions?

These questions may have crossed your mind a time or two if you’ve ever hit the snooze button until the last possible second, despite having set your alarm the night before with an early morning workout in mind. Morning-you stages a full-on mutiny against the completely sensible and admirable plan developed by the alarm-setting-you. And it’s not just fitness goals to which this dynamic applies. Carrying out good intentions can be a struggle in other areas, too, such as in the financial or academic arenas.

At a meeting of the National Association of Student Financial Aid Administrators, Kimberly A. Brown presented research from her doctoral dissertation. Her research, on the effectiveness of a financial literacy program, showed that improved understanding did lead to smarter decisions about money in many ways. However, on some issues, such as credit card use, behaviors did not change.

Several books in the last few years have explored similar questions, including Switch: How to Change Things When Change is Hard, by Chip and Dan Heath, and Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.

Thaler and Sunstein make the case that we all find it easier to make good choices when “choice architecture,” that is, the context that frames choices, nudges us in the right direction. A simple example of what Thaler and Sunstein have in mind would be making the cafeteria’s salad bar more conveniently located than the milkshake machine.

By planning ahead, we can be our own “choice architects.” For example, when you begin managing your own finances, setting up automatic online bill payments can keep you from getting stuck with late fees, and leaving the credit card at home can short-circuit temptation. What are some other ways that the you with great intentions can successfully nudge the you that will make future choices?