Is the Right Choice a Good Bargain?

Cass R. Sunstein
Cass R. Sunstein; drawing by James Ferguson

Cass Sunstein and Reid Hastie’s recent book about how to make group decisions “wiser” has a strange text on its copyright page: the Harvard Business Review Press will, for large orders of the book from companies and corporations, provide special printings with the company logo displayed on a customized cover and with a letter from the CEO added to the front matter. Since the groups that are discussed here include government agencies and juries as well as companies and corporate boards, I imagine all American citizens receiving a copy of the book with the Great Seal of the United States on its cover and a letter from President Obama, our CEO, added to its front matter. I imagine all of us reading the book. Would the decisions we make after that be any wiser?

For citizen readers, the answer is: probably not, with regard to many important political decisions. If we follow Sunstein and Hastie’s advice, we will do better addressing “problems with well-defined solutions” where “accuracy is measured by reference to objective facts.” But I worry about problems whose solutions are neither well-defined nor objectively measurable. In political life, many problems are of that sort; not much is said about them here. The avoidance of politics is the issue I mean to focus on in this review, but before that, I want to consider Wiser’s strengths and weaknesses in the terms its authors have set.

1.

Wiser is divided into two parts: the first deals with how group decisions go badly and the second with how to make them go well—or more accurately, how to get them “right.” Sunstein and Hastie write in a simple, direct prose, with a lot of repetition, like teachers who don’t quite trust the intelligence of their students. Indeed, the argument of the book is very much like that of its well-known predecessor, Nudge (2008), written by Sunstein with a different coauthor, Richard Thaler: your intelligence and mine can definitely not be trusted. We are the reason group decisions go badly, and the part of the book devoted to explaining this frequent failure is gripping, if also humbling.

The second part of the book, the helpful part, is less gripping. Too much of the advice—well, I knew it already, despite my decision-making deficiencies. “When dissent and diversity are present and levels of participation are high, groups are likely to do a lot better.” “If [group leaders] are inquisitive, they are more likely to learn.” “Nothing seems to inject reality into a discussion…as well as empirical evidence.” “Do not allow irrelevant social factors such as status, talkativeness, and likability…to bias evaluations.” These lines won’t make any likely readers of Wiser significantly wiser, but there are stronger suggestions in the book; I will take up a few of them later on.

Assume now that all the helpful advice has been ignored. Then things will often go…



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