Empowering and Educating the Decision Maker

According to Thomas Jefferson, democracy depends on an informed and educated electorate. The currently most influential approach to social engineering, however, has abandoned the goal of empowering citizens through information and education. Often called nudging, this approach assumes that people suffer from stable “decisional irrationalities” that lead them to make choices detrimental to their health, wealth, and happiness. Its proposal for containing the fallout from these irrationalities is to allow policymakers, for instance, to nudge people toward better outcomes by changing the default option in the decision environment. Rather than seeking to overcome decisional irrationalities by means of education or information, the nudge approach exploits those irrationalities to encourage people to act in their own best interest. 

We investigate an alternative to this nudge approach. By shedding light on the mind’s repertoire of heuristics and cognitive strategies and their interactions with the world, we can help people both to nudge themselves (rather than being nudged by others—be they policy makers or market players) and to recognize when others are nudging them for reasons that are less than noble. For instance, patients who are educated about the difference between relative and absolute risk can evaluate the benefits of proposed medical treatments or tests for themselves. Likewise, teaching people about the power of two principles—diversity of opinion and error offsetting through aggregation—to foster good intuitive predictions gives them a versatile tool for tapping the wisdom of the crowd in a single mind. Both of these examples illustrate that people can be empowered to make choices that are good for them. Nudging is not enough. We must equip people to build their own competencies—and make up their own minds—by fostering risk literacy, health literacy, financial literacy and decision-making skills in the form of simple and transparent rules. In our view, Thomas Jefferson’s belief in the importance of an educated and informed public is as relevant today as it was in his time.


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Hautz, W. E., Kämmer, J. E., Schauber, S. K., Spies, C. D., & Gaissmaier, W. (2015). Diagnostic performance by medical students working individually or in teams. JAMA, 313, 303‒304.

Herzog, S. M., & Hertwig, R. (2014). Harnessing the wisdom of the inner crowd. Trends in Cognitive Sciences, 18, 504‒506.