Bloomberg on Nudging and Leadership

An excellent interview with New York Mayor Michael Bloomberg is in The Atlantic (hat tip to Lee Haber at SCARP for sharing!) today, with some interesting thoughts on American and urban politics throughout. For me, the best bit of the interview was his explanation of his thinking behind the much-discussed soda ban:

“I think it’s government’s job not to ban things but to give you information and let you make the decision. So calorie counts would do that. Portion control is a graphical or physical way of giving you information in terms of how much sugar you’re consuming.”

The ban, which prohibits New York restaurants from selling soft drinks in sizes over 16 ounces, has received significant criticism over its perceived paternalism and the strict nature of the ban. However, Bloomberg (I think correctly) frames the policy differently–not as a restriction on how much soda a customer can buy or drink, but a salient way to convey information about a reasonable threshold of health.

“All we’re saying is that restaurants and theaters can’t use cups greater than 16 ounces. So if you want to buy 32 ounces, you can buy 32 ounces, you just got to carry it back to your seat, or your table, in two cups.”

Why should the amount of soda in your cup matter anyway? If you liked the jumbo size, a free-marketeer might argue, you’ll just get two (or three, or four!) sodas, and all we get for our efforts is some extra trash!

While Bloomberg doesn’t cite the research that underlies this policy, a growing body of research shows that portion sizes strongly influence the amount of food people will consume. In a famous example, groups of subjects were served soup, either conventionally or from bowls that imperceptibly refilled themselves from a vat under the table over time! Researchers measured how much the subjects had eaten: those whose bowls refilled themselves ate significantly more than the control group, but gave similar estimates of how much they’d eaten and how full they were. Essentially, the subjects relied not on their own appetites or dietary goals but on visual cues and simple heuristics, like “finish the portion in front of you.”

Brian Wansink, the author of the study, suggests that most people aren’t very good at estimating volumes of food and drink that they consume, and that portion sizes provide cues that can bias the amount we eat or drink. And without regulation, Bloomberg notes, consumption cues are being decided to maximize profits, not health:

“But to say to the public — the public says “I have a right to have my bottle of soda in any size I want” — no! You only have the right to buy soda in the size of the bottle that the manufacturer decides it is in his or her interest to sell.”

Bloomberg’s regulation, while appearing heavy-handed, is actually a great example of choice architecture–it preserve’s people’s freedom to consume what they want, while providing a handy cue towards what we might call an ‘optimal’ level of consumption. (One caveat is that consumer might end up paying more for two 16oz sodas than they would for one 32oz drink, in which case the regulation is a bit more of a shove than a nudge.)

As a last bit of wisdom on the subject: when the interviewer brought up popular opposition to the move, Bloomberg was unswayed, and in fact quite dismissive of the notion (here, anyway) that policy nuance should be subject to a public opinion veto:

“Leadership is about doing what you think is right and then building a constituency behind it. It is not doing a poll and following from the back…

[That’s not] good business or politics, because people aren’t good at describing what is in their own interest. If you say to somebody, “How many times do you turn the page?” and then go and stand on the other side of the room where they don’t notice you, and count, you will get a very different number from what they said they did. That’s true with everything. And — the obligation — what leaders should do is make decisions as to what they think is in the public interest based on the best advice that they can get, and then try and build a constituency and bring it along.”

The full interview, including great discussion of issues from restaurant licensing to bike lanes to Occupy, is here.

The Planner as Choice Architect

Part One of a series: “Why should planners care about behavioral economics?”

What are planners good for?

Within the profession, we can think of a lot of things we do and hats we wear: we’re writers. Designers. Analysts. We make maps and charts and videos. We manage people and projects. Sometimes we’re salespeople, trying to reassure the public or get a winning project bid.

Some of these roles are fun. Many are important. But none of them are at the core of what planners do–in fact, most of us aren’t especially good at most of them! Architects and LArchs are often stronger designers, and engineers and economists more sophisticated analysts and modelers. While we may know our way around Photoshop, we’re not professional artists, and try as we might to convince the public of our infinite wisdom, we’re not professional liars–er, politicians.

So what’s our niche?

One standard planning answer goes something like this: we have a mix of creative and analytical skills, but our real strength is bringing different perspectives and interests together to think farther into the future than other groups do. This, too, is an important part of our job, and it’s an ideal that (I think) attracted lots of us to the profession. But I don’t think it’s unique. Authors, journalists, academics of all stripes, technologists, and politicians are all in the market of selling us interesting visions of the future of the city and of urban life. And while these voices are often criticized for fixating on big, hypothetical game-changers, planners often ignore those changes entirely, planning decades into the future while assuming that current trends will stabilize to a status quo or some ‘new normal’.

I would like to suggest that we have a different role, one that’s meaningful, powerful, and unique in our context. It’s a role that we’re already performing, but that we’re only beginning to study explicitly. That role is choice architect.

In their 2008 book Nudge, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe the manager–let’s call her Ellen–of a public school system’s cafeterias who learns that students walking through the lunch line tend to take more of whatever foods are at eye level. Put cookies and pizza in that space? Kids eat more of it. Replace them with salad and whole grains? Kids eat more of them too. Nothing about the options in front of the students changed–they could still get their pizza and cookies, and they weren’t paying anything more for them. In economic terms, their incentives were exactly the same!

Ellen has a couple options: should she leave the items the way they were, or perhaps place them randomly to make the children’s choices ‘fair’? Or should she use this information to help kids choose healthier foods? Thaler and Sunstein call Ellen a choice architect: she has the ability to frame the decision that her students make in order to promote a particular set of goals, without restricting their freedom to ultimately make their own choice.

Like the cafeteria manager, planners often find themselves with the job of putting options in front of people–whether it’s our colleagues, the public, or the politicians and officials who ultimately get to choose what gets implemented. More often than not, our research is for someone else’s benefit, not our own, and we often view our responsibility as simply providing accurate information to that decision-maker. But as planners, we’re not just serving up information–we also get to choose, metaphorically, what to put at eye level!

The more we know about how people, both as individuals and groups, process information and make decisions, the better equipped we are to ensure that those decisions are good ones. Of course, this immediately raises the question of who gets to decide what a good decision is. As choice architects, our goal shouldn’t be to impose a particular outcome–doing that is a good way to get fired, and we’re not likely to be very effective at it anyway. What we can and should do is exactly what Thaler and Sunstein advocate: “influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” Our goal shouldn’t be to trick people into choices they’ll resent, but the opposite: to help them avoid regrets and make decisions they’ll be able to judge as the right call in the future.

Visioning, facilitation, and structured decision making techniques are all good first steps towards this that we can use today, but I believe behavioral economics has many more lessons for how planners can put good choices at eye level–or at least move obviously bad choices a little farther away. In future posts, I’ll be unpacking some of the key lessons on why people (including you and me!) process information and decide poorly, what interventions can help them (us!) do better, and some ideas about how planners can use this information.


Welcome to The Behavioral Urbanist, my first foray into the blogosphere! I’ll be writing here, hopefully at least weekly, about topics in the intersection between behavioral science and urban systems. As a student of urban planning, I pair a passion for the challenges and complexity of modern cities with inspiration from behavioral economics, happiness research, and political psychology.

Who am I? I’m Tim Baird. I’m a Master’s student at the University of British Columbia studying urban planning, with a focus on transportation. I’m currently conducting research on the relationship between commuting, well-being, and active transportation.