Book Review:


by R H Thaler & C R Sunstein

11 November 2022

I love this book – one of my top 5 reads of all time! Wittily written, the book is a rare combination of academic validity and laugh-out-loud fun!

- people fear dying from a tornado more than an asthma attack - though the latter is 20 times more likely.

- people who go ‘window shopping’ just to look invariably end up buying something (and often something they didn’t go looking for)

- when Homer Simpson wanted to buy a gun and was told there would be a legal 5-day wait, he said “but I’m mad now!!”

90% of people believe that they are above average as drivers, lecturers and entrepreneurs, and that 90% believe they will stay married. The authors discuss such subjects as ‘mindlessness’ (most people finished a free large bucket of popcorn – even though afterwards they say they didn’t enjoy it) and ‘yeah whatever’ (most adults who open the evening’s viewing on one TV channel stay on that channel, even if they are not particularly interested in that evening’s offerings).

The book is equally entertaining explaining the fallibility of humans as it is about the cunning of the researchers testing for such fallibility: how much of the free and tasty soup will you eat from the bowl - especially if unknown to you, the bowl automatically refills from below? I think you can guess the answer…

Turns out we are all much more like Homer Simpson than Mr Spock!

strongly recommended if you’re interested in:

& here are the key takeaways...

Choice architecture: how we influence choice

Choice is everywhere – you can’t create an environment, service or product without influencing the user’s choice. So anyone responsible for designing or producing the way the service or product is delivered, is a ‘choice architect’ – that is, someone who through the decisions they make (consciously or unconsciously) intentionally or unintentionally influence the way the customer engages or interacts with that service.  

How we think 

We are influenced by two systems: automatic and reflective (what more recently Daniel Kahneman has called System 1 and System 2 thinking). Automatic relies on no conscious thought at all; it is instinctive, intuitive, literally thoughtless. It’s incredibly quick, often based on ‘gut feel’, and just has a sense of ‘seeming the right thing’ – the right answer, the right thing to do, the right decision to make. Reflective is very much the opposite: it requires the issue to be thought through, using reason and logic, rather than instinct and emotion. But it takes time, and is really slow. Most human decisions are automatic; we are unaware of most of them – but they shape our lives. Some – many – work incredibly well for us – swerving in the car to avoid a child who’s run out into the road; but at other times, it really lets us down – for example when we join a crowd to see what’s going on, and enter the haven of pickpockets who set up the crowd…

Decision making

Your eventual decision depends on your starting point. The same number of people asked to make a donation of between £5 and £50 made lower donations than those asked to donate between £20 and £100. Most people dining at a reasonable restaurant will avoid the highest priced item, but not wanting to look mean, will often choose the second most expensive option. The acceptability of that 2nd option price is largely determined by the highest priced item. It’s the price of the highest item that makes the 2nd highest price seem more reasonable

Not only were you wrong, you were probably confident that you were right…
If you want to shift behaviour with a nudge, simply inform people about what other people are doing

Availability of information

We tend to be influenced either by what’s in the news, or what we are most interested in. Since murders are more often in the news than suicides, most people think there are more murders than suicides: they’re wrong. And – amazingly perhaps – if you’ve just looked the meaning of an unfamiliar word – you suddenly notice it more…

Habits – good or bad?

Most of the time they’re good, because they take the strain: without them, everything would have to be a conscious choice, rather than ‘left to habit’. So most of us don’t have to think about all those thousands of mini-life choices: brushing our teeth, getting dressed, setting the table, walking or driving to work – we do these without any conscious thought, and so give our brain a rest. But – there’s a downside; some habits keep us locked in a behaviour pattern that is neither helpful or, if we thought about it, desirable – like letting the tap run while cleaning your teeth…

Social influence

Like most of nudge theory, we can resist influence when it’s obvious, but can do nothing about it when it’s not. We have to be in control to exercise our own choices. Research shows conclusively that being with others – in a social group – significantly and predictably alters our behaviour. Do you think it makes any difference if you eat alone, with one other person, or a group of 4? Yes it does. For example, if two of you eat together, you are each more likely to eat 35% more food than if you ate alone…!

The power of language

Offering the same information in 2 different ways – for example, ‘there’s 90% chance of success’ or ‘there’s 10% chance of failure’ - influences the choices made. In this case, more people say ‘yes’ when success is emphasised, and ‘no’ when failure is emphasised

We can influence the figure you choose in a particular situation by subtly suggesting a starting point for your thought process


by R H Thaler & C R Sunstein

This book started the Nudge Theory movement, and is a fantastic read, full of eye watering examples to show how non-rational most of us are…open

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nudge theory... How an understanding of human behaviour – how we act, and why – can help you ‘nudge’ people towards or away from particular choices and outcomes…

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