Yale students are often accused of apathy. Whether or not this is a fair characterization, we’re human, and we’re all weighed down by mental inertia — that stubborn love of our bodies nestled into the couch.
Some among us did not vote in the election because the polling place was too far away. Others did not participate in the YHHAP Fast because it required too many clicks. Inertia is real, and we can’t change it. We often neglect doing anything because doing nothing is easier.
“Nudge,” a book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, describes how assuming inertia’s existence can allow us to “exploit” it. Harnessing inertia, or “nudging,” can help us promote better policy outcomes. For example, Spain has implemented an opt-out system where citizens are automatically organ donors until they choose not to be. Such a system has contributed to Spain’s high organ donation rate, 36 percent greater than the United States, which has an opt-in system.
Similar to organ donation, Yale should nudge students toward healthier and socially optimal choices. There are two areas in which nudging could trigger drastic changes: choices that concern our community, and choices that impact our lifestyles.
Since Yalies have hectic schedules, events that require mass participation often suffer from low participation rates. Contributions to the YHHAP Fast, in which students donate a meal swipe to homelessness and hunger causes, could surge if the choice architecture was redesigned. Assuming that YHHAP’s main goal is to raise funds and not awareness, it could substantially increase its impact if it convinced Dining Services to institute an opt-out system instead of the current opt-in. After all, it seems many students who did not sign up for YHHAP either did not know about the program or could not overcome their own inertia. I doubt that many are principally against donating a meal swipe to help the less fortunate.
In much the same way, we could revamp the “Big Sib – Little Sib” program, which is often understaffed. It’s not that we’re opposed to participating, I believe, but that the cost of going through the application process far outweighs the personal benefits we gain. Sillisibs, Silliman’s program, had a two-week sign-up starting in mid-July — at a time when students were focused on internships or work outside of Yale. If instead the default option nudged sophomores to participate in Sillisibs — with, of course, an opt-out provision — students would not have to overcome mental inertia, which perhaps peaks during the summer, in order to join the program.
The second area involves better choices for individual students. Dining hall managers could promote healthier diets by placing a salad as the first item in the main line, nudging Yalies to fill up their empty dish with vegetables instead of carbohydrates or meats. If the administration is concerned about excessive alcohol consumption, social events could be moved a half hour or an hour earlier — which would make “pregaming-a-pregame,” the phenomenon that frequently leads to extreme intoxication, more difficult. Perhaps such a change should have been considered before Safety Dance, Yale’s annual ’80s themed party, was cancelled due to alcohol-related hospitalizations.
Nudging is inherently paternalistic. It assumes that there is a best choice, and that as a community, based on our values, we would rather individuals select that choice than any other alternative.
It is not, however, a breach of the freedom to choose. We are not making decisions for anyone. People are still free to choose not to join the YHHAP Fast and eat what they desire. At the end of the day, something needs to be the default choice. Something needs to be the first item at the main line. If one argues that placing salads first in line is too intrusive, then isn’t the current arrangement of the mac-and-cheese at the front of the line also an imposition of a fatty carbohydrate diet on the student?
Yale is no stranger to nudging students. The University already employs a choice architecture for various programs. The Yale Health Plan, for example, is an opt-out program because as a community, we want everyone to be medically insured. The grading system is default letter grade — instead of default Credit/D/F — because we believe that students who are fully graded are more engaged in their academics.
The idea of nudging has gained so much traction that multiple governments, including ours, have established a behavioral “nudge squad” to examine areas where subtle changes can improve social conditions. While President Peter Salovey, who is coincidentally an expert in psychology, has grand plans for the University, he should always remember that he can also lead with a little nudge.
Geng Ngarmboonanant is a junior in Silliman College. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.