Rabbis Without Borders
Rabbis Without Borders is a dynamic forum for exploring contemporary issues in the Jewish world and beyond. Written by rabbis of different denominations, viewpoints, and parts of the country, Rabbis Without Borders is a project of Clal – The National Jewish Center for Learning and Leadership.
According to the NY1-Marist poll, 53% of New Yorkers believe that New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg’s latest proposal is a bad idea. The Nutritionist-in-Chief of the “World’s Capital” proposes a ban on the sale of soda in cups exceeding 16 oz. 42% of New Yorkers say it’s a good idea; and 6% are unsure. Manhattan was the only borough in which those in favor of the proposal, 52%, outweighed those opposed to it, 44%.
Is it an intrusion on our freedom? Not at all. Feel free to get 20 oz. of soda if you’d like, but you’ll need two cups. This forces you to visualize, and therefore stop denying, that you are one person drinking enough for two. What the mayor has done is created a bit of “choice architecture” that would “nudge” us in the right direction. He did a similar thing a few years back when he required the printing of calories on menus. You could have that lemon iced carrot cake with your latte if you’d like; your choice, but just know that it has all the rest of the calories your body will need to fuel you from breakfast until bedtime. Your choice.
In Richard Thaler’s and Cass Susstein’s wonderful book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, the two describe ways in which choices are offered that lure us to better decisions.
When you walk into a super market and you are statistically more likely to buy the cereal, or pretzels, or salsa that has been shelved at eye level. That’s prime real estate in the market business. Without a word, our choices are influenced by big and tiny nudges.
Certainly my favorite example, found in the introduction to Nudge, is that of the tiny image of a little black housefly etched into each or the urinals in the Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam:
“It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased…fly-in-urinal trials found that etching reduced spillage by 80 percent.”
What we know about human nature is that we are fully capable of making choices against our best interests, especially when we feel a competing value threatened. Right now some New Yorkers might feel like their freedom to buy and drink however much soda as they please is threatened. Yet at the same time, we are dealing with a national epidemic on the way to 1 in 4 Americans having diabetes. Freedom and health are the competing values here. It is very hard to change one’s habits, yet alone that of a city or a nation, but we know we need to change. I for one applaud the nudge toward smaller sizes of sugary drinks – empty calories that the body does not even recognize as food. Will I still have a soda at the movies? Yes, I will, but I won’t have two – and my waistline will thank me.
A nudge makes it easier for us to make the right choice. This is an application of the verse, “Thou shalt not put a stumbling block before the blind.” -Lev. 19:14.