Why invite an economic theorist into your composition class? Recent Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler offers concepts that bolster what you already teach in your course about the craft of persuasion, but with some twists that students find very appealing. Let me give you a little “nudge.”
Thaler’s theory of “choice architecture,” developed with colleagues Cass R. Sunstein and John P. Balz, are the foundation of their 2008 best-seller, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. My co-author, Stuart Greene, and I include a generous slice of these insights in our chapter on Economics in the 4th edition of our book, From Inquiry to Academic Writing. “Choice Architecture” explains the way that small details — in consumer displays, software design, fee structures, and more — can “nudge” us to make decisions in ways we may not notice but that profoundly impact our behavior.
Thaler is just the sort of expert we go out of our way to invite into our composition classrooms because his challenging ideas stretch our students’ vocabularies and conceptual understanding of the world, and the impact of these ideas is immediately clear to them. After all, who hasn’t felt manipulated on occasion by a “mandated choice”? And how many of us can resist the “path of least resistance” or “default” decision-making behind the “I agree to the terms” check-boxes that we often click out of resignation rather than comprehension? (These are decisions we sometimes regret.)
By helping students see the structures behind the thousands of subtle “nudges” in our daily lives, Thaler — and you, as a composition instructor — can help students understand the many “default” settings that shape every aspect of our daily lives, from consumer decisions, to our environmental habits, to the hundreds of decisions our universities make for us (all of us!) that are worthy of closer analysis. I’m willing to bet any topic you pursue in your composition classrooms could be enhanced by the tools Thaler offers.
Like the most effective and provocative writers you invite your students to study, Thaler models the academic habits of mind we all seek to foster in our classrooms, including asking questions that reveal patterns, and analyzing those patterns to understand their significance in our personal lives and communities. Where better than your classroom to hand students the tools to better understand the power of persuasion, particularly the “nudges” we don’t notice, even as we reach for that eye-level candy bar at the check-out stand?