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Nudge Yourself and Others to Make Smarter Choices

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Steve Jobs sparked hot debate about the rich "getting to jump to the head of the line," so to speak, when he revealed that he was able to get a liver transplant in a remarkably short time. At that time, 15,771 Americans were waiting for a liver. That year 1,481 Americans died waiting. Lives could be saved simply by changing the law to an opt out option when people renew their driver's license as they do in several European countries. This "presumed consent" means citizens are presumed to be consenting donors unless they act to register their unwillingness.

Look at the whopping difference in consent rates between two similar countries, Austria and Germany. In Germany, which uses an opt in system, only 12 percent give their consent; in Austria, which uses opt out, nearly everyone (99 percent) does.

Since most of us are passive about making decisions, opt out systems can nudge us to act smarter, yet are hotly-contested. Some nudges are devious and others are more like a shove.

Between the opt in or opt out methods is a middle approach that more people would probably find fair. The mandated choice. That's when the system requires individuals to make a choice.

For example, citizens in Illinois, when renewing their driver's license are required to choose whether or not they want to be an organ donor. Consequently, the state now has a 60 percent donor signup rate as compared with the national rate of 38 percent.

There are many situations where we resent the use of the opt out option. For example, when signing up for an online newsletter, the box is already checked for your permission to be sent advertising messages, usually called something like "special offers from our partners." Or when car rental agencies include insurance unless you specifically decline it.

Even more insidious is the legal ability, until recently, for insurance and other companies to share customer's personal data without an opt out option for us. Still, the bland-looking forms we are sent to opt out can easily be overlooked.

Here are three other unusual, yet simple and practical ways to improve your behavior with an opt out option.

• Get Richer Automatically

Millions of Americans would have more savings right now if they worked for an organization that provided an opt out retirement savings plan, as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein discovered.

As a variation for getting more Americans to save, President Obama proposed an "automatic IRA."

• Install a Reputation-Protecting Civility Check

What if someone created email software that could detect whether the email you were about to send out used angry, defaming, profane or otherwise hostile language -- and it came with your email program. You had to opt out of the service for it not to come into play.

Using it, you would receive an automatic message when you clicked send. "Warning: This appears to be an uncivil email. Do you really and truly want to sent it?" Then you had to make a decision whether to send or click 24-hour hold. With a cooler head the next day you may decide not to send it. That's one of several mini-nudges Richard Thaler suggests.

• Not Driving While Drunk

A convicted drunk driver can be forced to use an automatic opt out mechanism called an ignition interlock. It was invented by a judge who was hit by a drunk driver while coming home from work. Before those with a DUO can start driving their car they must blow into the device. If it detects alcohol the ignition system won't start.

What other behavior could an organization improve, using an opt out option?