The Power of a Nudge

“Why are you taking a full year of metaphysics?!?” my dad asked me after freshman year on college. Yes, that was odd but the professor was brilliant and incredibly gifted at engaging the students. The dense text (An Elementary Christian Metaphysics by Joseph Owens) lulled the class into deep, complex discussions resulting in a five minutes daze after class. We’d have to readjust to the real world after 1 and 1/2 hours of cognitive being, accidental qualities, and essence. A group of us would quietly walk to lunch after class on Tuesdays and Thursday waiting for our brains to leave the philosophical black holes of conceptions like square circles.~

The feeling is similar to moments in a marathon when my mind took control over my body.  It screamed, “stop this right now. Are you trying to kill me? I’ll be in so much pain tomorrow!” This was in contrast to the many miles where my body took lead and the mind seems to just go along for the ride. Confused? If you’ve made it to mile 22 in a marathon, chances are you understand. Unfortunately for me, my mind and body tend to push the red, stop button frequently when it is time to go out for a run. That is why they need to be nudged all the time.~

A nudge, a term introduced by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, is any aspect of a process that changes how people behave in predictable ways “without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” It sounds manipulative but behavioral science has been applied to highway safety.  On a narrow S- curve, for example, drivers ignore the reduce speed signs, but will slow down if the highway lines are narrowed. The narrower lines gives the impression that the car speeding up so the driver will slow down. Stores spend millions to study innovative ways to attract customers into the stores and maximize their spending. Even the janitorial lobby uses behavioral science; one of nudges’ most frequently cited examples is a sticker of a fly in a urinal that seems to improve the aim of the man in the bathroom. Who doesn’t drive an extra 1/4 mile in order to buy gas for $2.069 instead of $2.079? We know it’s illogical but we still do it.~

Although my mind is pretty dense sometimes and my body’s default position is on the couch, “nudging” helps counter these tendencies. For example, I lay out the running clothes the night before a run and put water bottles in the fridge. A running playlist will be created that I know will be excellent. I’ll even mention the run to work colleagues and friends and think to myself that I have to run now, otherwise I’d be a liar. These tricks, like setting one’s watch five minutes fast to avoid being late, are silly because we aren’t really fooling ourselves, but they seem to work so we employ them.

~Maybe that is why I feel like I need organized religion. While it provides me with a framework for relating to God and helps when my words fall short, perhaps the main reason why I enjoy worshiping with others on a regular basis is that I want, no, I need to be nudged towards perfection. The spirit is only willing sometimes.



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