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Let's face it, Noble Prizes awarded for the sciences are not known for their relatability. Take, for example, the Nobel Prize in Chemistry announced earlier this month "for developing cryo-electron microscopy for the high-resolution structure determination of biomolecules in solution". I'm sure this makes the world a better place, but I have no idea how cryo-electron microscopy affects me. What’s fascinating about this year’s Nobel Prize in Economics Sciences’ recipient, Richard Thaler, however, is that his work is easily applicable to everyday life and it’s called “nudge theory”. 

How It Works

Nudge Theory is a cute little name for a powerful way to explain the counter-intuitive way we make decisions. In its simplest sense, the theory says that, instead of making the most rational decision, people often make the decision that is easiest even if it ultimately affects us negatively. Factors such as habits, poor decision making skills, and a lack of time can all cloud our judgment when it comes to making decisions about what’s best for us. For example, in a New York Times interview, Thaler describes how he and his friend decided not to go to a basketball game they’d been given free tickets for because of a bad snow storm, but commented that they would have made the dangerous trip if they’d paid for the tickets. In both situations the smartest (and safest) decision would be to not go but when we pay for something, we feel more invested which, in turn, affects our decision making process.

I’ve seen this happen in my work with my therapy clients. Even though they know what’s best, they don’t chose the best option whether it’s impulsively quitting a job, staying in a toxic relationship, or repeatedly abandoning their healthy eating plan. For example, I’ve had several clients who are miserable in their current jobs. While their reasons differ, some feel unfulfilled in the work they do, others dislike their coworkers, others experience a mismatch with the corporate culture but they struggle to take the steps to make the change they need. My clients know that a job change would be beneficial and the better choice, but the time and effort needed to make that change makes it more challenging for them to take action. They tell me they feel stuck, so I work with them to minimize the barriers in their life to making that change happen.

How It Can Help

The key to Nudge Theory is figuring out how to combat what might be our instinct (or preference toward ease) and instead follow what's wise. This can be applied to everything we do, and it's at the core of my practice. How easy is it to repress our feelings, ignore our problems, assume there's nothing we do to help ourselves? But none of those thought processes are going to give us the outcomes we know deep down we want.

Nudge Theory can help find ways to encourage making better choices. For example, a recent BBC article on the theory cited research that found placing healthier foods at eye level on grocery store shelves provided the helpful nudge needed to encourage shoppers to choose the healthier option. Thaler has already worked with the British government to change the way pension plans are presented to employees in order to “nudge” them towards making a more beneficial choice. Instead of having to choose whether or not to enroll in the plan, employees are now automatically enrolled and can opt out if they’d like. This eliminates potential barriers to employees signing up for those benefits.

So if it's a new job you desperately desire, try making LinkedIn the homepage on your computer so that you see it each time you get online. Set a reminder on your phone two days a week to submit one application. If you want to stick to a healthier lifestyle, lay out your workout clothes at night, so they're right there when you wake up. Put the healthier items in your fridge toward the front, so they're more accessible. These small steps can make the wise choices feel easier and, therefore, more doable. 

Thaler’s work has positive real world implications for all of us. We can harness the knowledge that we tend to make our decisions based on the path of least resistance and use it to help us make decisions that will have a positive effect on ourselves and the world, one nudge at a time.