Critical and creative thinking as training to become a “better chooser”?

The passage below, from a review by moral philosopher Jeremy Waldron of books on “nudging” by policy theorist and sometimes practitioner, Cass Sunstein, made me wonder if critical and creative thinking could be the training Waldron laments missing out on. He wishes that he could be a “better chooser” rather than someone who needs to be nudged by policy-making authorities or goods-selling marketers.

[I]t may help to think about a slightly different sort of nudge—an informational nudge, where we manipulate the information given to people who use certain heuristics, in order to achieve the behavioral change that we figure the proper processing of correct information would lead to.

For example: between 15 and 20 percent of regular smokers (let’s say men sixty years old, who have smoked a pack a day for forty years) will die of lung cancer. But regulators don’t publicize that number, even though it ought to frighten people away from smoking, because they figure that some smokers may irrationally take shelter in the complementary statistic of the 80–85 percent of smokers who will not die of lung cancer. So instead they say that smoking raises the chances of getting lung cancer. That will nudge many people toward the right behavior, even though it doesn’t in itself provide an assessment of how dangerous smoking actually is (at least not without a baseline percentage of nonsmokers who get cancer)…

There’s a sense underlying such thinking that my capacities for thought and for figuring things out are not really being taken seriously for what they are: a part of my self. What matters above all for the use of these nudges is appropriate behavior, and the authorities should try to elicit it by whatever informational nudge is effective. [They (the authorities)] manipulate things so that [they] get what would be the rational response to true information by presenting information that strictly speaking is not relevant to the decision.

[S]hould [we] be so happy with what I have called “nudge-world.” In that world almost every decision is manipulated in this way. Choice architects nudge almost everything I choose and do, and this is complemented by the independent activity of marketers and salesmen, who nudge away furiously for their own benefit. I’m not sure I want to live in nudge-world, though… I appreciate the good-hearted and intelligent efforts of choice architects such as Sunstein to make my autonomous life a little bit better. I wish, though, that I could be made a better chooser rather than having someone on high take advantage (even for my own benefit) of my current thoughtlessness and my shabby intuitions.

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About Peter J. Taylor
Peter Taylor is a Professor at the University of Massachusetts Boston where he teaches and directs undergraduate and graduate programs on critical thinking, reflective practice, and science-in-society. His research and writing focuses on the complexity of environmental and health sciences in their social context, incl. Unruly Complexity: Ecology, Interpretation, Engagement (U. Chicago Press, 2005) and Nature-nurture? No (2014, http://bit.ly/NNN2014). On reflective practice, see Taking Yourself Seriously: Processes of Research & Engagement (with J. Szteiter, 2012, http://bit.ly/TYS2012).

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