How to nudge with statistics

… Between 15 and 20 percent of regular smokers, let’s say men sixty years old, who have smoked a pack a day for forty years will die of lung cancer.

But regulators don’t publicize that number, even though it ought to frighten people away from smoking, because they figure that some smokers may irrationally take shelter in the complementary statistic of the 80–85 percent of smokers who will not die of lung cancer.

So instead they say that smoking raises the chances of getting lung cancer.  That will nudge many people toward the right behavior, even though it doesn’t in itself provide an assessment of how dangerous smoking actually is at least not without a baseline percentage of nonsmokers who get cancer.

Or consider the way lawmakers nudge people away from drunk driving. 

There are about 112 million self-reported episodes of alcohol-impaired driving among adults in the US each year. Yet in 2010, the number of people who were killed in alcohol-impaired driving crashes 10,228 was an order of magnitude lower than that, i.e., almost one ten thousandth of the number of incidents of DWI.

The lawmakers don’t say that 0.009 percent of drunk drivers cause fatal accidents implying, correctly, that 99.991 percent of drunk drivers do not.

They say instead that alcohol is responsible for nearly one third (31 percent) of all traffic-related deaths in the United States—which nudges people in the right direction, even though in itself it tells us next to nothing about how dangerous drunk driving is.

via It’s All for Your Own Good by Jeremy Waldron | The New York Review of Books.

This quote is part of a review of Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism by a law professor named Cass Sunstein.   His argument is that government officials and others in positions of authority should not force people to do what’s good for them, but instead set things up so that the objectively best choice is the path of least resistance.

An example would be a corporation that automatically enrolled employees in a 401(k) savings plan, unless they explicitly refuse.  Or, more controversially, a Department of Motor Vehicles automatically signing up motors as organ donors unless they checked a box opting out.

I don’t like the idea of being manipulated for my own good, but I don’t have a strong objection of Sunstein’s philosophy, in view of all the advertisers and political propagandists that are trying to manipulate me for their good and not my own.

Like it or not, we’re all being nudged in different ways, sometimes to our benefit and more often the reverse.  If we don’t like it, we need to be alert to see how we are being nudged.  It is better to be a nudger than a nudgee.


Afterthought.  Just for the record, I don’t smoke and I have rarely driven under the influence of alcohol.  I can see where a person might judge the pleasure of smoking to outweigh the risks, even taking into consideration that tobacco is an addictive drug.  I don’t think that driving under the influence of alcohol is a good idea under any circumstances.

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One Response to “How to nudge with statistics”

  1. williambearcat Says:

    But what percentage of people who die from lung cancer were smokers? That is the percentage that makes more sense. I believe that lung cancer among people who did not smoke as very low–less than 3%. The statistic about alcohol and deaths on the highway seems nudging but acurate.


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