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Who's in Control Here?

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Even the scientifically literate can be confounded by probability. Mlodinow once tested positive for HIV, at which point his doctor sadly told him that there was a 99.9 percent chance he had a death sentence. But the doctor had failed to properly balance the 1-in-1,000 chance of a false positive against the 1 in 10,000 chance that a man in Mlodinow's demographic (heterosexual, married, white, non-IV-drug-user) had the virus. Within that group, only 1 in 11 people who test positive is truly infected; Mlodinow wasn't.

Once in a while, Mlodinow sends you scurrying for a statistics textbook when he ventures into deeper mathematical waters or skips steps in his explanations, but when things get slow, there's usually a diverting historical detour. This is the kind of book in which you learn that Pascal, after he set aside his work on statistics, took to wearing "an iron belt with points on the inside so that he was in constant discomfort," lest the siren song of happiness tempt him.

Nudge, in contrast, is a much more policy-oriented book. It comes with substantial advance publicity, thanks in part to the imprimatur of Sen. Barack Obama, who has embraced some of the authors' proposals, which are underpinned by libertarian paternalism. ("Paternalism" because the authors want to steer people to make better choices; "libertarian" because they feel people should still be free to make bad ones.)

Like Mlodinow, Richard Thaler, a pioneer of so-called behavioral economics, and Cass Sunstein, a noted law professor, discuss numerous studies that show just how far short humans fall from the ideal of homo economicus. Inertia, herd behavior, ignorance of odds, and egotism conspire to cause people to make bad decisions and poor predictions. (Typically, only 5 percent of Thaler's business school students say that they will end up in the bottom half of his class.)

Thaler and Sunstein's best-known proposal has to do with 401(k) plans. When people fail to sign up for such plans, they are leaving money on the table -- especially when employers match employees' contributions -- not to mention raising the odds they'll be subsisting on chunk light tuna in retirement. One study found that enrolling workers automatically in these plans -- switching from an "opt in" system to "opt out" -- drove participation in the plans from 65 percent to 98 percent.

In the arena of organ donation, switching to an opt-out system could save thousands of lives annually. One study in Iowa found that 97 percent of residents supported organ transplantation, yet only 43 percent of those people had checked the relevant box on their driver's license application. That gap could be closed if participation in organ-donor programs were the default position. If opt-in seems too aggressive when it comes to bodily organs, even a "forced choice" could improve the situation. Demanding that people give a clear yes or no would surely raise the number of donors, given the popularity of the concept.

Some nudges might be purely informational. How much of the current mortgage crisis would have been averted had prospective homeowners been presented with a clear, readable document laying out some of the bad-case scenarios when their low, teaser interest rates ended?

And there's more! What about a debit card explicitly reserved for charitable donations, which would make it a cinch to keep track of tax deductions and encourage more giving? Or software that detects uncivil language in your e-mail and asks if you really want to send it?

In the end, it must be said, the profusion of proposals in Nudge, however worthy, and the countless summaries of studies supporting them grow a bit wearisome. As influential as the book is likely to be, it's hard to imagine it pushing its way alongside Malcolm Gladwell's Blink (inferior social science, far breezier style) on the bestseller list. Then again, who dares judge the odds of the publishing biz? None of us knows when lightning will strike. ยท

Christopher Shea, a Washington-based writer, is the Boston Globe Ideas section's "Brainiac" columnist.


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