Have you ever met a math genius who has won advanced math competitions, but has difficulty keeping his checking account going without bouncing checks? If you feel like asking, How can people “be so ingenious at some tasks and so clueless at others?” you would not be alone. In their book Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein (2009) pursue this question in some detail (see book review in this issue).

Scientists think that they have found at least part of the answer to these seeming contradictions. They point to two distinctive kinds of thinking our brain engages in. The first kind, the Automatic System, is intuitive and automatic—not really conscious “thinking.” It kicks in as we get nervous when our airplane hits turbulence. The other, the Reflective System, is rational and engages in actual “thinking.” That’s when we tell ourselves, “Planes are very safe!” as we try to calm down.

The problem is that the Automatic System can often mislead you. A few years ago I learned the hard way that automatic decisions can be dangerous. During a visit in London I was was almost hit by a car coming from the “wrong” side. Yes, you guessed right. Before crossing a busy road I automatically looked—the wrong way, despite the big letters on the pavement to look right. My conscious thinking was just too slow to correct what I normally do automatically.

Fortunately the Automatic System can be trained, but it takes a bit of time and effort. How can you use this insight as a leader?

Thaler and Sunstein invite you to become a choice architect. Design choice elements in your company in such a way that they will “nudge” people towards making choices that are in their best interest. Research has shown that small changes in the context can have dramatic effects. It can be as simple as putting the unhealthy food choices in your company cafeteria out of the first line of reach.

Source: Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New York: Penguin Books.

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