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Julie Cook Kitchener March 3, 2021
Hi everyone,

Expanding your knowledge base and critical thinking related to behavioural economics, libertarian paternalism and nudging may inform the excellent work many of you are doing in the behaviour change field.

For those of you who are interested in behavioural economics, you might consider reading the following five books recommended by Dan Ariely (best-selling author and professor of psychology and behavioural economics):

1) The Invisible Gorilla
2) Influence
3) Nudge
4) Mindless Eating
5) The Person and the Situation

Each of these books are briefly summarized by Ariely here.

One of the key approaches in behavioural economics, which is particularly recommended by the authors of the book Nudge, is known as "libertarian paternalism". This is an approach used by some private and public institutions to affect human behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice. Within that approach, "nudging" is a common technique. Nudges are essentially positive reinforcements and/or subtle suggestions to push individuals to behave in a way that is (ostensibly) beneficial to them and society.

But is the libertarian paternalistic approach (and its nudges) ethical? There is an interesting critique of this in Mark D. White's book "The Manipulation of Choice: Ethics and Libertarian Paternalism". In this book, White makes a strong case for individual autonomy. He accomplishes this through two main arguments. First, he argues that there are limitations to private and public institutions' knowledge of what is best for any individual. That is, how can we truly know what is in an individual's best interests? Can we know this better than they know themselves? Second, White argues that it may not be morally justifiable to manipulate people's choices, particularly without their knowledge. One reason he provides is that this approach shields people from some of life's important lessons, which are gained partly through making mistakes and learning from them.

There are several more interesting arguments, which are laid out and evaluated in an excellent review of the book by Jonathan Anomaly. You can find the review here.