Biases and Nudges

Rodin, The Thinker

Snickers is obviously the best candy bar. It’s also strategically placed at the checkout line of most grocery stores. This convenient and predictable location makes it easy to verify the aforementioned laudatory status. And if you disagree and think another candy bar – say Milky Way – is better, well, that is fortunately available at checkout lines too.

Those who produce and purvey these wondrous snacks understand the importance of product positioning. Because I know through experience exactly when and where I will encounter my favorite candy bar in the course of shopping, I am more likely to purchase it. Conversely, if it’s outta sight, it’s outta mind. Now, it’s not healthy to regularly eat lots of Snickers bars (or any “junk food” for that matter), and yet many do it anyway. Many of us struggle in life, making wrong choices over and over again, even though we may know better. This tendency to make a predictably bad decision is what psychologists call cognitive bias.

Cognitive bias is a term used to describe how decision-making can be conditioned by certain factors. Over time, these factors–which range from our own upbringing to how marketers sell us products–influence us, often in negative ways.  Psychologists and self-help gurus use this concept to help people uncover and overcome assumptions and motivations that influence them negatively so that they can make better decisions and be happier, more successful, live longer, etc. Behavioral economics is another field that examines the way we make decisions. Economists are using these insights to try to move people towards making better decisions, like investing in better retirement programs or eating less Snickers. One example of this effort is Nudge, an influential New York Times bestseller that aims to diagnose certain biases in economic and social life and propose fixes. One of the authors, Cass Sunstein, has even advised the president on economic policy. The basic idea in Nudge is that we fallible humans often make predictably bad economic decisions because of our cognitive biases or a lack of salient information. So if we have economic policies that nudge us towards good decisions, we’ll be more likely to overcome our biases, choose well, and so live happier lives.

Notwithstanding its shortcomings, I think this theory can be a helpful way to think about the spiritual life. We have all experienced certain nudges that we interpret as the workings of the Holy Spirit in our life. We are also aware that we have biases that tend to shut out the workings of the Holy Spirit. We may tend to daydream during Mass and prayer. Or we may come up with excuses to not even pray regularly. We know these aren’t good patterns. Still, we find it hard to overcome them. Furthermore, there may be hidden biases that drive us towards bad decisions that we’re not even aware of.

Yet despite our biases and self-interested motives, God is with us. An important spiritual principle to remember is that through our participation in the sacraments and prayer, God dwells in us by grace. He moves us to cooperate with this divine gift, and when we do, we grow holier and happier. So in this case, the “nudger” is within. God lives within us and draws us towards him. From the perspective of grace we see he is not outside of us, attempting to tweak our situation like the psychologist, the self-help guru, or the economist with an ingenious plan for social control. He is our loving Father and guide. Like any good father or guide he doesn’t push or pull. He gives gentle nudges at times, and always in the right direction. Looking out for God’s nudges can help us.

One excellent way to be more aware of this presence is through mental prayer. We need to spend time with God so we can listen to him and sense where he is leading us. We will also then be better able to sense the many signs in our daily life that he gives us and uncover those hidden motivations and assumptions that often lead us to make bad decisions.

Everyone wants to know God’s plan for his or her life. God nudges us all of the time. Through prayer and recollection we can sense his presence and follow where he leads, which is the path that leads to him who is true happiness.

Image: Rodin, The Thinker (CC BY 3.0 by Wikimedia user)

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Br. Justin Bolger entered the Order of Preachers in 2012 and hails from Frederick, MD. He studied business at the University of Baltimore and earned a masters degree in philosophical studies from Mount Saint Mary's University in Emmitsburg, MD. He also wrote, recorded, and performed as a singer/songwriter. On