Sludge: A Negative Sort of Nudge

Cass Sunstein wrote a new paper on “sludge,” which is the inverse of his and Richard Thaler’s concept of Nudge.

A “nudge” is a way of designing choices so that the easiest path is the healthiest or smartest or “best.” It is a form of libertarian paternalism that tries to influence behavior while also respecting freedom of choice. E.g., automatic opt-in to organ donations with the option to opt-out.

Sludge, on the other hand, is “excessive or unjustified frictions that make it more difficult for consumers, employees, . . . and many others to get what they want or to do as they wish.” For example:

To obtain benefits under a health care law, people must navigate a complicated website. Many of them do not understand the questions that they are being asked. For many people, the application takes a long time. Some of them give up. 

Sunstein argues that organizations should regularly perform “sludge audits” to remove these kinds of anti-nudges from their process:

[T]he power of simplification puts a spotlight on the large
consequences of seemingly modest sludge—on the effects of choice architecture in determining outcomes. Simplification and burden reduction do not merely reduce frustration; they can change people’s lives.

Sludge Audits at 10-11.

As the world becomes more complicated and the attention economy more competitive, choice architecture is more important than ever.