#80 — Cass Sunstein (Harvard University)


Hello! Welcome to another edition of Inside The Newsroom, as we welcome in Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard Law School and one of the foremost behavioural economists to have ever lived. Cass has a new book out in September called Too Much Information, which explores the theory that when information is positive, we eat it up, but when it’s negative we don’t want to even hear it. In the podcast, we dissected his 2008 book Nudge, which still has great influence more than a decade later. Before we do, I wanted to honor the passing of another legend to have walked this planet. Congressman John Lewis passed away over the weekend at the age of 80. John was an absolute icon when it came to civil rights, and carried the torch lit by Martin Luther King and Rosa Parks well into the 21st century. Rest in peace, Congressman.

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Job Corner

The job board has been updated and this week’s deadlines include jobs at CTV, the Financial Times, Newsquest, Poynter, the Pulitzer Center and the City NY. Spread the word. 🤜🤛

Inside The Newsroom Job Board

Who is Cass Sunstein?

Cass is considered one of the smartest behavioural economists and legal scholars on the planet. He’s the founder and director of the Program on Behavioural Economics and Public Policy at his alma mater, Harvard Law School, the author of dozens of books — one of which (Nudge) is the subject of the podcast, and was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012 in the Obama administration, of whom he became friends with during their time together at the University of Chicago. I’ve followed Cass’ work for a long time, so it was an absolute treat to hear him speak at the London School of Economics back in January on his then latest book How Change Happens (more on that later).

Cass Sunstein Biography


Together with Richard Thaler, Cass co-authored perhaps his most influential book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Published in 2008, the book describes the theory that almost all decisions we make in life, whether it’s where and when to buy a house or even as small as picking what to have for lunch from a restaurant menu, are influenced by the decisions and frames, or “nudges”, made by other humans, aka “choice architects”. For example, would you go bungee jumping if the instructor told you there was a 90 percent chance nothing bad would happen? Probably. But what about if the instructor told you there was a 10 percent chance you’ll die if you jump? Probably not, right? The book was well-received among free market policy makers as a way to increase economic activity. But you can apply the theory in almost every aspect of life, such as where in a new school an architect chooses to place the bathroom will determine how often students go to the toilet. Cass and Thaler have been heavily influenced by another pair of behavioural scientists, Amos Tversky and Daniel Kahneman, whose friendship helped shape the world we live in today…

The Undoing Project

The friendship between Tversky and Kahneman is among the most important in recent history, and was excellently chronicled by author Michael Lewis in The Undoing Project: A Friendship that Changed the World. Lewis documents how the two Israeli psychologists identified in the late 1960s how humans tend to make decisions based on emotion over rationality — see Moneyball. Before Tversky and Kahneman, not much was known about why we make the decisions we do, and their work has since influenced most, if not all, behavioural economic theory we have today, including that of Cass and Thaler. Check out Lewis speak about the book and friendship to Malcolm Gladwell below…

Related Podcasts 🎙️

#61 — Rachel Botsman (University of Oxford) on issues with trusting people and the media

#58 — Art Markman (University of Texas) on knowing ourselves and the power of introversion

#44 — Sebastian Junger (Tribe, The Perfect Storm) on how some humans are addicted to war because it unites them

How Change Happens

As mentioned earlier, I was lucky enough to catch Cass speak at the LSE about his latest book on how social change happens. Why is that after around 150,000 years that we Homo Sapiens have occupied this planet, that it took until the early 19th century for women in many countries to vote? And how did the social movement that led to women in Saudi Arabia being able to vote in 2015 even start? Once we understand what’s happened in the past then we can begin to dismantle other archaic and repressive policies around the world. Check out Cass’ talk by clicking on the button below…

Cass Sunstein at the LSE

What is Luck?

So many of our decisions influenced by other people. Cass elicits that 100 percent of our decisions are controlled by choice architects, whether it’s intentional or not. It raises the question of whether luck is real or a fictional concept we’ve made up over past centuries and millennia. The answer to this question depends on the situation. According to Merriam Webster, luck is “the events or circumstances that operate for or against an individual”. So let’s break it down with a few examples personal to me, but please apply to your own circumstances as we go along…

Let’s start with how I believe I got my current job at The Wall Street Journal. Back in February, a member of the graphics team got in touch about a possible opening and told me I should apply. One might call that lucky, but said member follows this very newsletter and thus was familiar with my work. They wouldn’t have been if I hadn’t published this newsletter, so I don’t think my new job was down to luck. That’s something I indirectly controlled, i.e. the quality and quantity of my work. But there are still many things that I’ve had zero control over. The most prominent in all of our lives are things such as which country we’re born in, our sex at birth and what name our parents give us. We have absolutely no control over any of that, which means that some degree of luck is involved that’ll determine where we live, how much money we’ll earn and whether we’ll face a lifetime of racism or not, for example. In what ways has luck played a part in your lives?

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The Future of Behavioural Economics

Tversky and Kahneman only started to theorize in the late 1960s, which makes the field of behavioural economics incredibly young. Already in the past half a century, we’ve learned so much about ourselves and how our brains are wired. As we head into the next 50 years, Cass fully expects the explosion of knowledge to continue at a rapid rate. He referenced books such as Scarcity: Why having too little means so much, which explores why people in difficult circumstances tend to make objectively bad decisions. For example, why is it that people in poverty don’t take advantage of opportunities to save when they can? Why are poor people perceived as less capable than rich people? I know a lottttt of wealthy folks that are stupid asses!

Now that we have a decent understanding of how our brains work, we can continue to build from Cass’ work and apply this knowledge to improve people’s lives. Cass referenced the idea of getting rid of the ‘sludge’ — he apologized for the similar-sounding name to this book, Nudge — to make our lives far easier. Sludge is the burdens and hoops institutions make us jump through in order to complete important and sometimes trivial tasks. For example, to my knowledge Transport For London don’t tell you if you’ve crossed into a congestion charge zone — it costs at least £15 to drive in certain areas in central London — which is a form of choice architecture that has created ‘sludge’ for drivers in not knowing whether they need to pay. And in the U.S., the process of finding a healthcare provider, filling out the forms and receiving a payout is a tedious task created by humans that can be easily avoided. Now that we know sludge exists and we have a snazzy word for it, we can figure out ways to reduce it.

See you later this week… 👋