Nudging our resolutions

  • naturalLy
  • Saturday, 15 Jul 2017

Sometimes, it takes a financial incentive to push us towards making the right choices. 

DIVERGING from the usual genres of non-fiction that I choose for my reading list, I recently finished reading Richard Tahler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Despite the title, it is not a self-help book, but is a thesis of sorts on economics.

The book managed to nudge this virologist to appreciate economics, and how sometimes, we humans really do make bad decisions. The cliched term “to err is human” comes to mind.

The book also enlightened me on what the authors termed “choice architecture” – systems which can be designed to influence individuals to make a particular decision.

The authors advocated systems that allow us humans to have choi­ces, but not too many choices, as the latter would complicate our ability to choose rightly – what the authors termed “libertarian paternalism”.

Faced with a respectable menu of available choices, the public is “nudged” by choice architects to make the “right” choice. These architects could be policymakers, the go­vernment, political parties influencing voters as to whom to vote for, or even the most powerful architects of all, Econs (i.e. economists).

One example from the book involving New Year resolutions impacted me most. Like many others, I too made resolutions back in January, when I resolved to reduce plastic waste and to eat “cleaner” this year.

Half a year on, I make up the statistically proven 46.8% of persons who stuck to their resolutions six months after making them. However, there are slip-ups, of course, as I am only Human, not an Econ.

While I use reusable bags for my grocery shopping and insist on vendors using my own tiffin carrier when I purchase food at the pasar malam, I seem to be an outlier.

Worse, the litter consisting mainly of plastic bags and containers is often left on the road for local council workers to clean up when the pasar malam is over, providing yet another example of how Malaysians generally are not civic-conscious.

I also found the “no plastic bag” policy implemented in the state I live in needing improvements. While there is a “nudge” evident in the form of a 20-sen charge per plastic bag, most consumers are still way too happy to pay this extra cost rather than bringing their own reusable bags.

As for eating clean, I only have two words: nasi lemak. I still am too much of a Malaysian to be eating overnight oats for breakfast.

In Nudge, the authors provided examples of how easily influenced humans are, where the public make their choices based on what is currently trendy. I personally think that this is one of the factors that saw Donald Trump becoming the President of the United States, a fact not addressed in the book as it was written in 2007.

Unlike Trump, I am aware of the scientific evidence that supports climate change. It is for this reason that I made the New Year resolutions that I did.

Yet, I am but one person. There currently needs to be more eloquent and insistent nudges to implement policies, especially those involving public health and the environment in general.

There is a radio jingle encouraging the Malaysian public to eat more healthily. I would like to think that this is a “nudge” by the Health Ministry in an effort to overcome the current issues of obesity and the high number of cases of diabetes in our population.

#FitMalaysia campaigns and the excitement surrounding the upcoming SEA Games should be sustained in nudging the Malaysian public to lead a more physically active lifestyle. I also look forward to the MRT lines being fully operational, allowing more of us to have the options of walking or cycling more to get to the MRT stations.

As for plastic bags, I think charging a significant amount, say RM10 per bag for reusable bags, would yield better results. This would allow consumers to purchase a reusable bag, eliminating the option of plastic bags and serving as a monetary “nudge” for consumers to bring their own bags or risk adding RM10 to their shopping bill.

Consumers should also have the option of returning the bag to the grocers or supermarkets and receiving a refund. This would begin a recycling system of bags used for our weekly shopping.

With the recent alarming news of a massive, 1.12 trillion-tonne iceberg having split off from Antarctica’s Larsen C ice shelf, I think all of us should seriously “nudge” ourselves to care about climate change. It is high time we all take responsibility for our choices, and take what small actions we can to live responsibly in this nation and this earth.

It could be small choices as simple as asking for no plastic straws with our drinks as advocated by the #taknakstraw campaign, or using reusable bags instead of plastic bags for our shopping. We should also be mindful about our food choices and reducing waste associated with the food we consume.

After all, great impacts start with small actions.

Lyana Khairuddin is a virologist and a runner, and hopes to #bringbackthekebaya. The views expressed here are entirely her own.

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Opinion , Lyana Khairuddin , columnist


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