Cialdini Asks is a series of video interviews in which I ask experts in behavioral science about the journey that spurred their literary and academic work: how they wrote about it for a larger and more popular audience, the aspects of their content, and the motivations behind their work. 

Today, I interview Richard Thaler, Economist and Professor of Behavioral Science and Economics at the University of Chicago Booth School of Business. He is the author of several books on the subject of behavioral economics, including Nudge and Misbehaving

It was a pleasure speaking with Richard for the Cialdini Asks Interview Series.

Read the transcript of this interview below.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Hello. I’m Bob Cialdini, a behavioral scientist and author of the book Influence as well as the new book Pre-Suasion. I’d like to tell you about a series of video interviews I’ve conducted with individuals who I admire and who have written about behavioral science not just for the academic community, but as well for the larger community, individuals such as Dan Ariely, Adam Grant, Amy Cuddy, and Richard Thaler.

In this series of interviews called Cialdini Asks, I try to get beneath the surface and behind the scenes, inquiring into the motivations that spurred the work of these individuals and their decisions to write about it for a popular audience. I also ask them about aspects of their work that exceeded their expectations in terms of impact as well as those aspects of their work they felt have been most underappreciated. I even ask them to tell us a funny story or revealing one that nobody knows about them and their work. I know that in the process, I have been surprised, fascinated, and informed by their answers. I hope that the same will be true for you. I do hope that you will look out for and tune in to the Cialdini Asks video series as we make it available online over the next several weeks. Thanks.

Welcome, everyone, to today’s installment of the Cialdini Asks interview series. My guest today is Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago, widely recognized as one of the founding figures of the tremendously influential field of behavioral economics. Hello, Richard.

Richard Thaler:                   

Hi, Bob. Great to see you.

Robert Cialdini:                  

You as well. I’m a big fan of your work, and that includes, of course, your concept of nudges, practices that influence people in directions that stand to enhance their lives. I was especially taken with your recent book, Misbehaving, which describes the beginnings of behavioral economics. Can you tell us what led to your decision to write that book? That is, what were the factors that nudged you to decide that the time was right for this account in this form, that is as a popular book?

Richard Thaler:                   

Well, let me answer that in two parts. First, why I decided it was time to write another book after Nudge, and then why I chose to write it the way I did. The first explanation of how I came to write another book comes from my literary agent, a notorious figure in the literary world, John Brockman, who is the agent to many academics turned authors, including Danny Kahneman and Dan Gilbert and many others.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Yes.

Richard Thaler:                   

John has several what you would call pre-suasion techniques that he uses to nudge authors into writing a book. I got to know John through Danny and Dan Gilbert, and some time after Nudge came out, John started his routine. The first step of the routine is flattery. He tells you that you’re a great man and the world needs to hear from you. Now, I should say, John’s normal manner is … A kind way to put it would be gruff, and so all this flattery is a contrast to what you’re used to. “Oh, that book, a piece of crap. Oh, that …” You know. You have this curmudgeon who is telling you how great you are and how the world needs you to write a book. I’m telling him, “Look, John, that last book was a lot of work. I don’t even have time to think about what I would write a book about, much less write a book.”

Then he uses the Cialdini master trick of the foot in the door. So he says, “Look, look, you know …” I said, “I don’t have time to write a book proposal.” He says, “No, no, no. Don’t worry about a book proposal. Just write me a letter. Just send me a two-page letter on what you might write a book about.” He keeps pestering me about this, and finally, really just to get rid of him, I send him a two-page letter about an idea, a glimmer of an idea I had for a book, the title of which was Snags. The idea was this is … I kind of thought of it as a prequel to Nudge. Here are the things we trip on for which we could use help.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Yeah.

Richard Thaler:                   

I wrote up a couple of pages with some examples and sent it to him and figured that would be that. It would be the last I would hear of that. The next thing I knew, there was a book auction going on. I said, “What happened? John. Wait. What? What? What? What is this auction?” Then somebody is waving some amount of money in front of me to write a book about which I’ve thought very little and I’ve written two pages. Okay. Then how did Snags turn into Misbehaving?

Robert Cialdini:                  

All right.

Richard Thaler:                   

I worked on Snags off and on for two years. As I said, I was busy, but I had a research assistant work for me full-time two summers investigating various snags and their origins and how we got into this. I had sort of this pile of stuff, and it just didn’t work. What I realized is that what made Nudge work was two organizing principles. One was the idea of libertarian paternalism, that you could help people without forcing them to do anything. The other was choice architecture, that by creating the environment in which people choose, you can help them navigate better. I think of GPS as the ultimate nudge. So I had those two organizing principles, and I had Cass Sunstein, who can write 100 pages a day, so that made book writing easy.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Yeah.

Richard Thaler:                   

This book just had … It was a collection of things that … I was getting frustrated. I was ready to send the money back, and then I decided all right. What I’m going to do is just write a few chapters that are fun for me to write and see what happens. There’s a chapter in that book. My favorite chapter in the book is the story of how faculty members at the Chicago Booth School of Business chose offices in our new building. You can see my office here in the background. Well, spoiler alert. Mayhem ensued. Now, that was a lot of fun to write that chapter. I got to make fun of my colleagues.

Robert Cialdini:                  

It was fun to read it, I have to say …

Richard Thaler:                   

Yeah. Every academic can relate to that. Now, that chapter actually fit into Snags, right? I thought I was still writing Snags, and the next chapter in the book, which goes with it, is a chapter about the NFL draft and some research I had done showing that teams put way too high a value on picking early in the draft. This is something I had continued to work on, and I was working with some NFL teams. So that was fun, and I wrote up a few more of these. I showed them to Michael Lewis, the author of Moneyball, and who recently has written a book about Danny Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Terrific book.

Richard Thaler:                   

Terrific book. Yeah. I’d become friends with Michael over the years, partly helping him with the research on that book. I sent him this bundle of chapters and said, “How much of a book could be like this?” He said, “All.” He encouraged me to make the structure of the book not exactly autobiographical, but chronological. Now, my publisher … Let’s just say the publisher was not completely enthusiastic about this. The reason is that the book ends up being in a non-existent niche, because it’s one-third memoir, one-third history of a field, and one-third primer of that field, with lots of stories. The model I had in my head was if Feynman had written Surely You Must Be JokingMr. Feynman, one of my favorite books of all time. If that book had included physics, that’s the book I wanted to write.

Now, I kept asking, “Is there any book like that?” No. My publisher told me we’re not allowed to mention the word memoir anywhere when we talk about this book, because people don’t buy memoirs of obscure academics or even academics like us that are not quite obscure, but we’re not movie stars and we’re not superstar athletes. It’s not like that book is about my life. It’s more kind of me as a spectator and somewhat of a participant in something interesting that was happening.

Anyway, as you know, I start the book by telling this story about Danny Kahneman getting a phone call. I’m sitting in his living room. He gets a phone call from a reporter who is writing a story about me. This is about 15 years ago. Danny says, “Oh, this is embarrassing,” he says to me, because I’m just sitting in Danny’s living room, and we’re schmoozing as we always do. He says, “Oh, I forgot. I have this phone call from this reporter. He wants me to talk about you. I don’t know. Maybe you should leave.” I said I could go to another room. He says, “No, no. You can stay. Maybe it will be amusing.”

I’m sitting there in his living room, and he’s talking to the reporter, and at one point, I hear him say, “The best thing about Thaler, what really makes him special, is that he’s lazy.” Danny. Danny. This is my best friend, right, and he’s telling me that my outstanding attribute is my laziness. I can’t say anything, right? I’m bound to silence, but I’m waving at him. To this day, he insists that this is a compliment. He has to do a little dancing to insist on that. He says that my laziness means that I only work on things that are interesting and important. Now, I think there’s a better way of phrasing that, though, but Danny is wise in all matters, so I wrote this book because I’m lazy. I only wrote chapters that were amusing for me to write. If it wasn’t amusing, I left it out.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Fascinating. Great story. Let’s talk about the flip side of that question. Of all your work, what has most surprised you in terms of its big impact? What has had oversized effect relative to your expectations for it?

Richard Thaler:                   

Well, that would have to be the book, Nudge. Now, I told the story of Misbehaving. We set out to write Nudge. We didn’t have a title. Our working title was Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron. Publishers thought we might sell tens of copies, if we had big families. We knew that wasn’t going to be the title, but we didn’t have … We figured we’d think of the title later. Previously, I told you that Misbehaving used to be Snag. It’s not like we didn’t realize we needed a title, but anyway, that book proposal … Maybe partly because of absence of a title … landed with a thud. No one wanted it.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Really?

Richard Thaler:                   

No one wanted it. We ended up publishing it with an academic press. They did want it, but they were used to selling tens of copies of books. They didn’t know how to market it. No one expected anything from that book, including us. Well, it’s sold nearly a million copies now.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Right.

Richard Thaler:                   

More importantly, it led to the introduction of behavioral science into public policy-making through a series of happenstances. When David Cameron was the Chair of the Conservative Party in the UK and preparing to run for election, he had a group of young people surrounding him, one of whom bought a copy of Nudge and thought this was something that the Tories could use. He bought a pile of them and left them as a nudge in the little offices where they used to hang out. David Cameron picked one up and read it, and he said, “Oh, yeah. Maybe we could use this.”

Then when the election came … Their elections, we could learn something. Their elections take about two months, where this one felt like two decades for us. They have something they call a manifesto. It’s kind of equivalent to our platforms. In their manifesto, they said, “If elected, we’re going to use behavioral science to help inform public policy.” I know how unimportant party platforms are in the US, so I thought nothing of this, but a couple of weeks after the election, I get a call. “Okay. We’re doing this thing. How do we do it?” I flew over to London, and they were lucky enough to have just the perfect guy to start this team, David Halpern. They had about five people, and started doing things. A few of them worked, and there was great … I should say, the initial reaction of the media to this idea in the UK was extremely hostile. There were lots of jokes about the Monty Python routine, nudge, nudge, wink, wink.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Right. I remember that.

Richard Thaler:                   

Lots of people … We had a famous example in that book about the urinals in the Amsterdam Airport, where they etched the image of a fly near the place you’re supposed to aim. The claim was that it reduced spillage, a great euphemism. It reduced spillage by 80%. I’ve never been able to get that data, but anyway, lots of people thought that this was about the most important problem that we would be able to tackle. Well, that team now has close to 100 people. There is a similar team in the White House, 50 other countries, The World Bank.

For a book that nobody wanted to publish and that we didn’t think anybody would read … When we wrote the book … It’s interesting. Whenever I write anything, academic article or op ed or a book, I try to have a couple of real people in mind that I’m imagining I’m writing it for them. For academic articles, it’s usually for my biggest critic. Like my finance articles, I have my now golf buddy, Gene Fama, whose office is around the corner. I’d often think about him and say, “All right. What’s he going to say about this, and how can I preempt that?”

Robert Cialdini:                  

Yeah.

Richard Thaler:                   

When we were writing this book, I told Cass I had this approach, so we picked two people as our imaginary readers. One was David Brooks, the New York Times columnist, and we picked him because he was a thoughtful conservative, and we were trying to devise policies that would be attractive to conservatives as well as progressives, and say, “Okay, he would be one.” The other was we had this new Senator in Illinois who was a former colleague of Cass. A skinny black guy called Obama.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Oh, Geez.

Richard Thaler:                   

We thought it would be good if he read it, because he looks like an up and comer. When we were writing the book, he was in the first year of his in the Senate. Those are the two people. We thought if we got those two people to read the book, it would be a success. We did get those two people to read the book, and some more.

Robert Cialdini:                  

And it was a success.

Richard Thaler:                   

And it was a success.

Robert Cialdini:                  

It’s such a success that it’s now an approach. It’s known as an orientation to decision making and choice rather than just a collection of stories. Remarkable. Remarkable. By the way, do David Brooks and Barack Obama know that they were over each of your shoulders as you wrote?

Richard Thaler:                   

David knows. Cass worked for the President the first four years of the administration, and they were friends. Obama used to be an adjunct professor at the law school here, and he had an office somewhere near Cass’s. They were good friends, and that’s why he took him to the White House. I don’t know whether Cass ever told him that story.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Right. Fascinating, though. I do the same thing. When I write a particular … Even down to a particular paragraph, I will put over my shoulder an academic who is a specialist in that particular area that I’m writing about, and over my other shoulder, a neighbor, someone who is just interested in information about how we work as a species. I don’t allow myself to proceed to the next paragraph until I think I’ve satisfied both. That’s my green light. Now I’m finished and I can go on to the next.

Richard Thaler:                   

Yeah. Well, of course, the third person I had in mind is my wife France, who you’ve met.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Yes.

Richard Thaler:                   

When we finished, I was afraid to show any part of Nudge to France, but when we had a manuscript, I gave it to her, and she started reading it. We set aside a weekend, where she had marked it up, and I can tell you, it was a brutal weekend. She says, “First of all, you don’t even define nudge,” and it went from there. The best set of comments we got on the book came from her. It was painful, but in the back of my mind, and certainly when I was reading this, but when I was writing Misbehaving, I knew the day was going to come when I had to hand her this manuscript. She sets a high standard.

Robert Cialdini:                  

Right. Well, this has been a terrific set of answers to a set of questions I always thought I would like to be asked. I appreciate that very much. It was very revealing, and I think there’s some nuggets in here that no one has ever heard about. I’m glad to be able to make them available to people. Thank you again, Richard.

Richard Thaler:                   

Bob, it’s a pleasure, as always. I hope to see you in the flesh some time soon.

Robert Cialdini:                  

I as well. So long for now.

Richard Thaler:                   

Bye, Bob.

Robert Cialdini:

Bye.


misbehaving

Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics

Laced with antic stories of Thaler’s spirited battles with the bastions of traditional economic thinking, Misbehaving is a singular look into profound human foibles. When economics meets psychology, the implications for individuals, managers, and policy makers are both profound and entertaining.

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Pre-Suasion:  A Revolutionary Way to Influence and Persuade

The author of the legendary bestseller Influence, social psychologist Robert Cialdini shines a light on effective persuasion and reveals that the secret doesn’t lie in the message itself, but in the key moment before that message is delivered.

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