The Nobel Prize and the Urinal Fly

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I wish I had written this article earlier. That is true of many paradigms I believe I should popularize; I failed to take the risk I could have, until it is merely to be appreciated in hindsight — but that is a subject for another day. I wanted ages ago to document my experiment with “urinal flies.” These are little images, etched into the porcelain in men’s rooms, of a literal insect or some other tiny target, even simple cross-hairs. The reason they are of interest is that the Nobel laureate in economics this year, Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, has promoted the concept that a “nudge” of behavior is better than a regulation. The “urinal fly” is a symbol of his theories, and that is not to be facetious. Yet I was deterred at the time by people who told me it would outlandish, if not outrageous, that someone who held a position of authority might opine on a subject such as this. It would be unseemly, indiscreet to call out. That reflects the mistake of bureaucrats and intellectuals alike everywhere and throughout history. They have been squeamish about assessing the actual effectiveness of their ideologies, whether on the left or the right. Make your plan convenient. People will conform.

Thaler received the greatest prize globally in his academic discipline, because he has shown, including in accessible presentations, that decent, rational humans can be encouraged to be even nicer and more reasonable, not by being told or ordered to behave in that manner, but through changes in the structures within which they make decisions. You can tell men all you like that they should pee into the receptacle in front of them, but they nonetheless miss whether intentionally or negligently. In my draft essay, I pointed out that the problem only worsens throughout the day. I spared no detail: once there is a puddle, the next guy steps back a bit, and that only increases the probability that they will fall short in their task at hand, increasing the mess, which continues a cycle that will not be reset until the intervention of janitorial staff — none of the users of the facility deigning to remedy it.

The more sanitary example is the difference between “opt in” and “opt out.” Both respect liberty. But “defaults” matter. Most of us, not because we are bad people, nonetheless are lazy persons. If our employer sets up retirement savings accounts and signs us up automatically, unless and until we elect otherwise, many of us simply leave it as is. The practical application of the school to which Thaler belongs is that their principles enable officials to alter, in the aggregate, outcomes, for progressive purposes (or other goals), without imposing rules that raise not only an ideological objection about coercion but also transaction costs associated with enforcement. If as a public policy matter, we desire to encourage people to set aside money for their sunset years, we can do so without mandating it. Those who deliberately prefer to take chances about their future, or who have arranged for dependents to care for them, can choose another course of action.

The most recent controversy involving these insights has concerned super-size soft drinks. It turns out, according to the same social science, that basically if you tell me the only cups I can pour a sugary, unhealthy soda into are eight ounce serving size, I will consume much less than if I have access to a container an order of magnitude greater. Note that banning the big gulp vessel doesn’t prevent me from refilling the small size repeatedly. I do that on my own through propensities I do not even notice. The regimen is not perfect. I could pour more. But I’m not likely to. Thus we can decrease intake of these beverages indirectly, by controlling the cups rather than you and me. Government of the overall architecture of choice, not any citizen’s actual choice, succeeds without violating our norms.

None of this is new. Thaler deserves utmost credit for the elegance of his arguments and empirical proof supporting them. Yet his ideas date to antiquity. Ulysses, traveling home from war, told his sailors that he wished to hear the Sirens sing. The most clever member of the Greek military was cognizant of the legends. Sailors were lured to their deaths by the Sirens. They pointed their ships toward the rocks to be all the closer to the music. Ulysses had himself lashed to the mast. He could listen to the dangerous creatures, but he could not reach them. Although he enjoyed their alluring voices, he did not obey them. Like Ulysses, perhaps we restrain ourselves to be free.

A few years back, after reading a book explaining all of these innovations by Thaler and a colleague of his who was appointed to a special role in the White House, I set myself the project, as head of an institution of higher education, personally to install urinal flies to try to improve cleanliness. (If you are wondering about the result, the aftermarket stickers were removed by staff who thought they were a bizarre defacement). I also talked up the notion. People blanched. I chalk that up not to our reluctance to discuss bodily functions but our unwillingness to acknowledge that we, the self-aware selves with an ego, are not as much in charge as we assume. Much of what happens during the day is motivated by impulses. All of us operate within a framework though. We do wrong despite ourselves. We also can do right despite ourselves. There are means to avoid temptations and temper recklessness. Our own inner selves, less perfect than we would suppose, compel us to be mindful. Economic rules, even more than the most obscure legal rules, are invisible to us. To perceive them allows us to command them.

By transforming our environment, we can achieve our ideals. The effort requires that we be have a conscience about the subconscious, the collective and the individual.