Fly marks the spot


Etched in each of the Amsterdam Airport Schiphol’s urinals, just to the left of the drain, is a black housefly, noted Richard Thaler Friday during the GSB’s 56th Annual Management Conference 2008 keynote address. The reason? It gives men a target. Since its introduction, restroom spillage has decreased 80 percent.

While dirty bathrooms may be a relatively minor issue, said Thaler, the Ralph and Dorothy Keller distinguished service professor of behavioral science and economics, the etching illustrates a "nudge," an environmental feature that attracts attention and spurs a particular behavior. In his new book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness (Yale University Press), he and his coauthor, longtime Law School professor Cass Sunstein (who's bound for Harvard this fall), argue for policies that guide people toward making decisions that serve their self-interest while preserving their ability to make a choice.

For instance, the book advocates that companies automatically enroll employees in retirement-savings plans unless they opt out. In companies that have such programs, enrollment has jumped 40 percent. “Humans are imperfect,” Thaler said. “We need all the help we can get. Choice is good … but the idea that people will always make the correct choice is ridiculous.”


Photo: The housefly etched in an Amsterdam airport urinal gives men a target.

May 19, 2008