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Small Habits with Huge Impact: Cass R. Sunstein

July 16, 2019 — Written by Liz Fosslien

Welcome to the first in a series of interviews that will spotlight the wisdom and habits of some of the world’s most interesting people. At Humu, our mission is to make work better, and we regularly get the chance to talk to inspiring minds in academia, business, and government.

When we do, we ask questions that we hope will help everyone—everywhere—benefit and grow from the advice, routines, and practices these leaders share.

Today, I’m thrilled to speak with Humu advisor Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University and founder and director of its Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy. Cass famously brought nudges to prominence in his New York Times best-selling book Nudge and served as the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under President Barack Obama.

Humu: Given unlimited resources, what question would you most want to try to answer?

Cass R. Sunstein: What makes for well-being, for individuals and for societies. This is partly an empirical question, which has several dimensions: What do people like most? What makes life most meaningful? Happiest?

It also involves evaluation. What’s the best kind of life? In the last twenty years, we have made a lot of progress on these questions, but there’s so much more to learn. (Also: How can we cure cancer? Eliminate poverty?)

H: In which area or industry do you think nudges are being underutilized? 

CRS: The workplace! That’s where people spend a whole lot of their lives. What could make that time better?

H: What do you see as the two biggest factors behavioral scientists need to consider when applying nudge theory to different cultures/countries?

CRS: The most striking finding is that nudges usually work across cultures and countries! For example: Automatic enrollment increases participation. So does simplification. If you remind people of something, they’ll do more of it (ordinarily). Social norms are powerful, and if you tell people about them, you can get results.

Aside from that, there is just one big factor that needs to be considered: Test, test, and test! Oh, and also: Social norms might surprise you, so try to find out what they are. Oh, and also: Get a concrete understanding of what the current problems are. Local knowledge is essential.

H: If an organization wants to reduce sludge, what is the best way to start that process?

CRS: Do A Sludge Audit! Meaning, do some kind of assessment of how much time employees and others are spending on paperwork burdens and administrative nonsense. 

A Sludge Audit can be pretty informal. You can just ask people (employees, clients, patients, consumers) and tabulate some kind of qualitative account of the results. Or give them a definition and then ask them what kind of sludge they hate most. Or it can be formal. It can come up with real numbers, as in, employees spend two hours every week on sludge. My own institution, Harvard Law School, should do a Sludge Audit today. Bank of America should do it this week; so should Apple and Toyota and Pepsi.

H: What is one thing you have to do every day? 

CRS: Walk my Labrador Retrievers! (Two of them.) “Have to” is a bit too negative, since it is basically a joy.

H: How do you recharge? 

CRS: Reading good novels, including mysteries and science fiction. I am right now reading What You Don’t Know About Charlie Outlaw, and loving it. I adored Daisy Jones and the Six. And: Netflix. Rita, the Danish show, is not to be missed.

H: What’s one way your work has changed the way you live?

CRS: I focus a lot on “navigability” – on how people can get where they want to go. When I travel, or do something fun-related or work-related, I try to make sure that everything is easily navigable, so we don’t get frustrated or lost. In the White House, I was lucky enough to help create the TSA Pre/Global Entry program, and I get everyone in my family to use it, and everything that is analogous to it.

H: What’s your best time-saving shortcut? 

CRS: I try to keep meetings really short – 15 minutes, if I can. I also say “No thank you” to things that seem kind of obligatory but that are time wasters. Amos Tversky, the great psychologist, is said to have said, “For people who like that sort of thing, that’s the sort of thing that they like.” Wise words. Also: If it can be done via email, it will be done via email.

H: What do you value most in the people you work with?

CRS: Kindness. Also, enthusiasm and a sense of fun. If you have the three together, you’re pretty golden.

H: What book do you recommend to everyone? 

CRS: Possession, by A.S. Byatt. It’s about romance, work, and soulmates, and what matters most.

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