Category: Social Science

Why Be “Nudged” Toward Better Decisions?

sunstein_nudgeRead the profile of Cass Sunstein in the May 2014 issue of The Atlantic!

From last minute impulse buying at the grocery store to the way we treat the environment, it goes without saying that we are sometimes prone to making decisions that are not in our own best interest. Sometimes we know intellectually that these decisions won’t ultimately make our lives better, while other choices we make out of a lack of awareness about the consequences. According to the authors of Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, this is part of our humanity. We make mistakes that do not improve our lives due to natural biases. We are simply susceptible to these kinds of lapses as humans, and this has interesting consequences for politics and the individual. Ultimately Sunstein and Thaler propose an outlook that starts from that premise: we will err, so how can things be designed so as to ensure the best result for ourselves? Through analyzing how we approach decisions, we can arrange our environment in a way that is conducive to choosing things that will benefit ourselves and our communities in the long term. This kind of “choice architecture” is the “nudge” to which the title refers. Crucially, it does not remove freedom of choice in these scenarios, but looks to creating situations in which we are more likely to choose those things will make our lives better. sunstein

In his new book, Why Nudge?, Sunstein — professor and former Obama administration official — takes this approach further to defend and clarify how we can embrace about this kind of paternalism. He admits that the concept of paternalism is sometimes controversial. “Paternalism stirs strong emotions,” he writes. “Many people abhor it. They think that human beings should be able to go their own way, even if they end up in a ditch.” Why Nudge explains how we can responsibly approach guiding people toward more beneficial choices, and how the effects of those healthy choices spread through the community. Sunstein takes issue with John Stuart Mill’s Harm Principle that asserts, “the only purpose for which power may be rightfully exercised over any member of a civilized community, against his will, is to prevent harm to others.” That is, an individual’s own well-being is not a good enough reason to limit his or her autonomy. Yet Sunstein shows how we can honor people’s freedom while taking into account their tendency to veer from what would help them.

In short, Sunstein demonstrates that “in certain contexts, people are prone to error, and paternalistic interventions would make their lives go better.” Sunstein also acknowledges the limits of paternalism. One such issue is simply the diversity of human lives; what is “good” for one person at one time is not necessarily good for the other and one size does not fit all. Still, he notes the way in which being required to wear a seatbelt, or being disallowed from texting while driving applies to the welfare of the majority of the population, no matter how diverse. Indeed, Sunstein does not dismiss Mill’s argument on all grounds, rather he seeks to show how it is not always right, that indeed there are times where paternalistic interventions are a preferable option and should thus be considered.


Cass R. Sunstein

Message: Don’t Look to Suicide, Stay with Us

Twenty years ago, the suicide of Kurt Cobain shook not only the alternative music scene, but much of popular culture as we know it. The infamous 27 Club, which then included musicians like Jimi Hendrix, Janis Joplin, and Jim Morrison, and more recently, Amy Winehouse, was mainly a phenomenon of accidental deaths and murder. Though many died from drug and alcohol related causes, Cobain’s suicide has continued to be a subject of great spectacle and controversy, even as the case was re-opened briefly in March 2014 and confirmed as suicide. The heartfelt responses—both of today and yesteryear—have rippled out from Cobain’s native Seattle region and reached a global recognition of this type of tragedy.

Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against ItIn the critically-acclaimed, Stay: A History of Suicide and the Philosophies Against It, Jennifer Michael Hecht  examines suicide from a number of philosophical, religious, spiritual, and cultural traditions, bringing forward the argument of what its impact has become in our contemporary society and how we deal —collectively—with the pain. In the video below, recorded for The Dish, Hecht discusses the mimetic tendencies of suicide in response to the impact that an individual’s suicide has on friends, family, and community.  The message is to stay with us, as a part of a community: If you don’t kill yourself, you’re saving someone else’s life. “I’m grateful, you’re my hero. Thank you for not killing yourself.”

Jennifer Michael Hecht: The Impact Of A Suicide from The Dish on Vimeo.

In Memoriam: Tennent Bagley

Tennent Harrington Bagley, author and former C.I.A. officer, passed away on Feb. 20 in Brussels at the age of 88. While working for the C.I.A., Bagley assisted a Soviet spy, Yuri Nosenko, turn against Russia, only to believe this spy was a double-agent. Bagley spent many years trying to prove his suspicions.Bagley_Tennent.jpg

Bagley was born in Annapolis, Maryland on Nov. 11, 1925.  Coming from a military family, his father was a Navy Admiral and his brothers followed suit.  Indeed, his uncle was the first American officer killed in the Spanish-American war. According to the Independent, this background was typical for those joining the Agency in its early years. Bagley spent his youth in France, California, Washington and Hawaii.

While studying at Princeton, Bagley left to join the Marine Corps during WWII. After the war, he graduated with a degree in Political Science from the  University of Southern California, and later, a doctorate in Geneva at the Graduate Institute of International and Development Studies.

Listen to Bagley‘s 2007 Spy Wars interview for the Yale Press Podcast

The C.I.A. recruited Bagley while the Agency was still in its early years and he rose quickly through its ranks. First serving in occupied Vienna, Bagley moved to working in counterintelligence against the Soviet Bloc and the KGB in the 1960s. He rose to deputy chief of the Soviet bloc division.


Bagley met Yuri Nosenko, a Russian KGB officer who was offering to help the Americans, in a Geneva safehouse in 1962. He was tasked to be his chief handler as Nosenko provided information. The case would soon grow increasingly complex as Bagley and James Angleton, the Agency’s  counter-intelligence chief, began to doubt Nosenko’s story. It appeared to Bagley that Nosenko was part of an elaborate plot of misdirection, intended to tie up the Agency’s resources.

Spy Wars, published by Yale Press in 2007, tells this fascinating and complex story as well as exploring the inner workings of espionage and what it means for the intelligence community. It was chosen by the American Library Association as one of “The Best of the Best from the University Presses: Books You Should Know About,” and by William Safire in the New York Times to be the publishing sleeper-seller of the year for 2007.

Bagley is survived by his wife Maria of 58 years, three children, a brother, and five grandchildren.

The Political Decisions that Keep Guantanamo Bay Open

Listen to the podcast interview for The Terror Courts on iTunesU!

terrorCourtsOn the Yale Press Podcast, in conversation with Yale University Press Director John Donatich, author Jess Bravin revealed: “It was one of the commission’s big advocates, Senator Lindsey Graham, who told me, in effect, that you needed to put the 9/11 defendants on trial by military commission in order to justify the existence of military commissions . . . Justice in this case has been delayed in order to add to the creditability of military commissions by giving them marquee-level defendants to prosecute.”

Jess Bravin’s The Terror Courts: Rough Justice at Guantanamo Bay has won numerous accolades for debunking presumptions like these about Guantanamo Bay and the military commissions. Terror Courts was a 2013 top political book pick by many, including the Washington Post and Publishers Weekly. Rolling Stone called it “captivating,” the New York Times labeled it a “welcome addition to the history of national security legal policy dilemmas in the Bush era.”

With The Terror Courts releasing in paperback this month, we are pleased to share an excerpt from the conversation between YUP Director John Donatich and Bravin. Guantanamo Bay once garnered enough public attention that then presidential candidate Barack Obama made closing the detention camp a campaign promise. John Donatich asks Bravin about the potential for sustained public outcry as the detainees cases drag on in the permanent military commissions:

John Donatich: What do you think now, with the hunger strikes getting more attention, at what point do you think Guantanamo will be an issue that Congress has no choice but to address, and will there be any kind of sustained public outcry against what’s happening?

Jess Bravin: Well there is no public outcry against what’s happening there that I can tell, there are certainly people that have been concerned about it, but it’s not an issue that motivates mass attention in the United States.

I think that if the congress remains as it is now—divided partisan control in the two chambers, and no constituency for addressing Guantanamo, it’s hard to image much happening from Capitol Hill. I think the initiative lies almost completely with President Obama. In his first term he was willing to expend zero political capital towards his campaign promise of closing Guantanamo and significantly altering the way that military trials worked—well, he did alter the way military trails work on paper, I have to say that. He did sponsor legislation that did afford defendants greater protections than they had previously, but in terms of closing the place and just closing the book on this post 9/11 experiment in parallel justice, he hasn’t really done anything to accomplish that after discovering there was some political price to pay for trying back in 2009.

Listen to their complete conversation on the Yale Press Podcast, now available through Yale University on iTunesU.

Jess Bravin

Jess Bravin

The Meaning of Faith and Reason

See all 20% off titles in our YUP Backlist History promotion!


It’s good practice, if you are going to argue with something, to aim at the best version of that thing you are arguing with. In Reason, Faith, and Revolution, Terry Eagleton argues that opponents of religion like Richard Dawkins and Christopher Hitchens (or ‘Ditchkins’ as Eagleton calls them) should criticize religion as it actually exists, not the lesser versions of their imagination. Reason, Faith, and Revolution, originally from the Dwight H. Terry Lectures  in 2008 at Yale, finds Eagleton wading into the “religion debates” made famous by the New Atheists. As Dawkins and other New Atheists continue to tour and lecture on the topic, these debates continue to hold a place in the cultural conversation.

Reason, Faith, and RevolutionEagleton responds to Christopher Hitchens’ claims that, since we have advanced technologically and can now observe the universe scientifically, we do not need religion to explain our world. “Christianity was never meant to be an explanation of anything in the first place,” writes Eagleton. “It is rather like saying that thanks to the electric toaster we can forget about Chekov.” Reason, Faith, and Revolution explains aspects of what religion does mean, and has meant historically.

According to Eagleton, critics like Dawkins not only mistake certain versions of fundamentalism to be Christianity itself, the author notes the similarities between Ditchkins and the fundamentalists they criticize (“and not just in their intemperate zeal and tedious obsessiveness,” he adds). The scriptures are far more complex than Hitchens and Dawkins allow.

One of the major misconceptions Eagleton addresses is a false dichotomy between “faith” and “reason”. Severing the two allows for
“faith” to be blamed for society’s ills, while “reason” can be characterized only as reasonable. Reason and faith are intertwined for Eagleton, and one is not to be discarded for the other. Reason does not go “all the way down”, he explains, and for centuries the two have been understood together.

Religion does not come out unscathed from Eagleton’s analysis either. He does not flinch in naming the failures of the church throughout history, betraying what Eagleton understands as the roots of the gospel. Indeed, he writes, the version of the gospel found in some churches has made it easy for people to “buy their atheism and agnosticism on the cheap”

Culture and the Death of God

As usual, Eagleton’s prose is acerbically witty and pointed, and he does not hesitate to make light of rigid secularity or self-righteousness along the political spectrum. While polemical, it remains entertaining to read and thought-provoking regardless of what side of the debate you find yourself on. As the conversation over religion in the public sphere continues, Eagleton is an important voice to listen to, particularly as he offers nuance in a debate too easily dismissed as black and white.


Coming this month, Eagleton’s new book, Culture and the Death of God, reflects further on the role of religion in public life. Since modernity attempted to accept the absence of God, replacements for the role have rushed in. Eagleton analyzes these historical developments from the Enlightenment to life after 9/11 in the light of religion and atheism, as well as considering possibilities for the future.

Remembering Robert Dahl

Photo: Yale University

Robert Dahl. Photo: Yale University

Robert A. Dahl (1915 – 2014), eminent political scientist and champion of democracy, passed away on February 5, 2014 in Hamden, Connecticut, at age 98. Named by Foreign Affairs magazine the “dean of American political scientists,” Dahl was instrumental in building one of the first modern political science departments. Dahl authored hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including the Who Governs? (Yale University Press, 1961), On Democracy (Yale University Press, 1998), and many other works.  He was Sterling professor emeritus of political science, the highest academic rank at Yale University.

Born in 1915 in Iowa, Dahl’s family moved to Alaska during the depression. He graduated from the University of Washington in 1936 and received a doctorate in political science from Yale in 1940, joining Yale’s faculty in 1946. In the intermittent years, Dahl enlisted in the Army, serving in Europe during World War II. He was decorated with the Bronze Star Medal. He also worked as an economist for the War Production Board.

Who Governs?, winner of the 1962 Woodrow Wilson Prize, argued against the conception that political power is held by one elite group through a close examination of New Haven, Connecticut. Instead, Dahl suggested power is comprised by groups with competing interests, what he termed polyarchy. Democracy and Its Critics, an analysis on the nature of democracy and its function, won the Woodrow Wilson Prize in 1990 and the Elaine and David Spitz Book Award in 1991. Dahl earned many such accolades, and in 2002 The New Yorker wrote he was “about as covered with honors as a scholar can be.”

Known for being a generous presence, attentive adviser and active participant in the university community, Robert Dahl will be missed. Yale University Press is privileged to be the publisher of eight of Dahl’s books including After the Revolution? (1990), How Democratic Is the American Constitution? (2003), and his most recent, On Political Equality (2007).

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Goodreads Giveaway: Win a Copy of “It’s Complicated” by danah boyd

Goodreads is hosting a February book giveaway of It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teens by danah boyd. Enter now to win your free copy of this timely book that analyzes teenage behavior on social networking sites and how it affects the personal development of today’s teenagers.

In the meantime, you can read more about It’s Complicated on our blog. Good luck to all!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

It's Complicated by danah boyd

It’s Complicated

by danah boyd

Giveaway ends February 25, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win


Teens and Technology: Why Your Child Spends So Much Time Online

It’s a common sight these days to see young people glued to their smartphones, tablets, and assorted other electronic devices–and that continues to confuse and worry many parents. Why do teenagers text their friends instead of talking to them when they’re in the same room? Are they addicted to technology? How are they going to get into college if they’re always so distracted? These are just a few of the questions that the prominent social media scholar danah boyd has frequently encountered from concerned adults, and such attitudes often permeate parenting guides and journalistic accounts of teenagers’ relationships with technology. In the newly released It’s Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teensboyd utilizes eight years of research and her background in technology to assess the anxieties surrounding teenagers’ use of social media. She makes a compelling case that, despite an environment of rampant fear-mongering, technology can actually empower teenagers to become informed and engaged citizens through their online interactions. It's Complicated: The Social Lives of Networked Teensboyd begins by pointing out that history is rife with examples of hand-wringing at the arrival of any new technology: when the sewing machine was invented, people feared the sexual implications of women moving their legs up and down; when the Walkman came along, it was seen as a malicious device that would cause people to stop communicating with each other. Then there were also the new genres of media such as comic books, penny arcades, and rock-and-roll music, which were believed to be gateways to hooliganism. Given this history, then, we should take such episodic moral panics with a grain of salt, boyd argues. Instead, it would benefit parents to consider their children’s underlying motivation for being tied to their iPhone 24/7: the desire for social connection.

Most teens are not compelled by gadgetry as such–they are compelled by friendship. The gadgets are interesting to them primarily as a means to a social end. Furthermore, social interactions may be a distraction from school, but they are not a distraction from learning. Keeping this basic social dynamic firmly in view makes networked teens suddenly much less worrisome and strange. [...] Teens often want to be with friends on their own terms, without adult supervision, and in public. Paradoxically, the networked publics they inhabit allow them a measure of privacy and autonomy that is not possible at home where parents or siblings are often listening in. [...] Although many adults think otherwise, teens’ engagement with public life through social media is not a rejection of privacy. Teens may wish to enjoy the benefits of participating in public, but they also relish intimacy and the ability to have control over their social situation.

Considered in this light, the puzzling sight of teenagers who seem surgically attached to their devices turns out not to be so strange after all: it is simply the modern manifestation of an age-old need to stay connected. It’s Complicated is full of other such insights into the lives of teenagers in a digital world, helping parents, teachers, policy-makers and journalists to understand the deeper motivations for what otherwise appears to be a shallow interaction with electronic objects. With sociological nuance and a journalistic flair, boyd unravels the complicated realities of teenage life, ultimately offering the reassuring conclusion that the kids are really quite all right.

Lifestreaming: What Happens When We Share Our Lives Online?

Read a piece from Alice Marwick on why “social media is making us anxious and paranoid“ on!  (13-min read)

Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age
In her new book, Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Age, Alice E. Marwick explores how Web 2.0–or social media–encourages a preoccupation with status and attention. Social media, she argues, has “brought the attention economy into the everyday lives and relationships of millions of people worldwide, and popularized attention-getting techniques like self-branding and lifestreaming.” Based on extensive ethnographic fieldwork conducted in San Francisco, where Marwick spoke to members of the tech scene, attended meetups about technology, went to parties hosted by tech companies, and observed interactions online, Status Update is a penetrating sociological record of the Web 2.0 culture.


As a preview of the insights Marwick offers in her book, we’ve selected the following excerpts from a chapter about ‘lifestreaming’, in which she explores the advantages and disadvantages of sharing our personal lives online.

Lifestreaming is the ongoing sharing of personal information to a networked audience, the creation of a digital portrait of one’s actions and thoughts. People who lifestream use software like Twitter, Facebook, and Foursquare to track information about themselves and make it available to others [...]  Lifestreaming is the “always-on” aspect of social media, the constant pings and alerts that makes smartphones so hard to ignore.”


Digital Intimacy

“While Twitter is frequently characterized as a chattering stream of irrelevant pieces of information, these pieces of information, gossip, small talk, and trivia serve to create and maintain emotional connections between members of the networked audience. A study by Gina Masullo Chen found that the more time people spent on Twitter, the more they felt a sense of camaraderie and connection with other users. [...] Individual items from the lifestream, such as what music someone is listening to or where they are eating, probably have little or no intrinsic value to the audience. But each tidbit aggregates with other pieces of personal information to form a larger picture and reinforce a social bond.”

Creating Accountability

“Personal informatics enthusiasts used technology to record and monitor personal data, often using the internet to broadcast weight loss or health progress. For many, knowing that people were watching their data streams created a sense of obligation to an audience, much in the same way that groups such as Weight Watchers or Alcoholics Anonymous use peer accountability to help members maintain desired behaviors. Similar principles applied to social obligations. Actions like wishing people “happy birthday” and attending events were done in view of others, encouraging people to hew to social norms.”


Social Surveillance

“Before the internet, people would learn about parties or romantic relationships by gossiping or asking friends. This type of knowledge wasn’t secret, but it wasn’t available to everyone and was rarely written down. Today, any member of the networked audience can peruse a Facebook invite to see who was or wasn’t invited, or look at Foursquare check-ins to see who is spending time together. [...] Social media users are practiced in the extraction of nuance through ongoing analysis of the lifestream. While each piece of information by itself may not mean much, it creates a larger picture when combined with others. For example, knowing that Julie visited a local bar on Tuesday night is not, in isolation, particularly interesting [...] If analysis of the lifestream reveals that Julie’s best friend’s ex-boyfriend was also at the bar, and this is the third night in a row that they have been in the same place, a new picture emerges.”


“The presence of the networked audience not only encourages the self-conscious performance of identity; it enables others to weigh in on social norm violations. [...] while audience involvement can be seen as promoting accountability, social media also amplifies the amount of drama and conflict as other people besides the original two players become involved in the argument, chiming in much as gossip blog readers weigh in on the latest celebrity divorce or feud.”


“Location-based social software like Dodgeball, Foursquare, and BrightKite were especially anxiety-provoking to my interviewees. People use these applications to “check in” to a place and broadcast their location to friends, making it possible to see where friends and acquaintances are at all times. If ten friends checked into a bar, the eleventh friend would wonder why she hadn’t been invited. This feeling is recognized by many in the tech scene as FOMO, or “fear of missing out.” Deciding to have a quiet night in doing laundry can seem like the wrong decision when faced with pictures and tweets from friends doing something that looks more fun.”


Selected from Status Update: Celebrity, Publicity, and Branding in the Social Media Ageby Alice E. Marwick. Copyright © 2013 by Alice E. Marwick. Al rights reserved.

Ideas for Green Progress in Urban Centers

Cities are growing. According to the World Health Organization ”as of 2010, more than half of all people live in an urban area. By 2030, 6 out of every 10 people will live in a city, and by 2050, this proportion will increase to 7 out of 10 people.” Green idea innovation is essential to maintaining an urbanized lifestyle.

With proper management, city living can be more environmentally friendly than suburban or other lifestyles. The density of cities allows for more sustainable forms of transportation, energy savings in shared living spaces, and a reduced footprint of environmental impact. Sustainability in rapidly growing cities is clearly a key issue for mayors to address. If Mayors Ruled the World, by Benjamin Barber, shows why cities and the mayors who run them can provide answers to the world’s most urgent problems while rescuing democracy for the twenty-first century.


The Very Hungry City,by Austin Troy, is an important investigation of the ways that cities consume energy and how energy efficiency will determine which ones thrive in the future. Selected as the Baltimore Ecosystem Study Book of the Year, the book analyzes how well cities from  Los Angeles to Copenhagen have capitalized on the energy saving potential of urban centers. Troy concludes with recommendations on the planning and policy approaches that can bring about change and transform the best ideas into real solutions.

Don’t miss your chance to win a copy of the newly released paperback The Very Hungry City; make sure to enter the Goodreads giveaway by Friday, January 31!

Goodreads Book Giveaway

The Very Hungry City by Austin Troy

The Very Hungry City

by Austin Troy

Giveaway ends January 31, 2014.

See the giveaway details
at Goodreads.

Enter to win