Tuesday, May 26, 2009


May 25, 2009

Nudge-ology was the title of an article in The New Republic not too long ago as a description of Obama’s economic policies. The author was making the case that whenever possible the Obama administration was encouraging or ‘nudging’ preferred behaviors by their policies rather than demanding, requiring or legislating them.

At a recent ‘egg-onomics’ breakfast at All Saints’, the dean of the college of management at Georgia Tech, Steve Salbu talked about why good people make bad decisions by looking at some of the ways we fool ourselves and so become susceptible to mistakes.

Both the article and the talk were delving into the increasingly influential and interesting field of behavioral economics. I have written before about Dan Ariley’s Predictably Irrational as a good primer for this field. Recently however a friend pointed me to an article from Foreign Policy called ‘Why Hawks Win” (http://www.foreignpolicy.com/story/cms.php?story_id=3660) This too argues from behavioral economics for the predictable errors that lead us to give rein to the hawkish bias “built into he fabric of the human mind”. We are prone to exaggerating our strengths. We tend to attribute the behavior of others to the person’s nature, character or motives even when we are alerted to context that should affect our judgment. We tend to optimism in the face of evidence and so on and we hate to cut our losses. The article argues that if we can become aware of our biases then hawks will not win more arguments than they should.

These things play out with some frequency in the church as well. I remember being on a standing committee that had to evaluate parish requests to take on significant levels of indebtedness, usually for a building program. They were without failure more optimistic about the effect of their building on the future growth of the parish. (If you build it they will come.) Buildings do make a difference in the experience visitors have when they check out a parish, but nothing is more important than the reality of the welcome they receive and the preparedness of the congregation to make room for new people, new ideas, maybe even new music and so on. For a parish that will not change, indebtedness is a major drain on the resources being released for the proclamation of the gospel. Predictably irrational indeed.

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