The World According to Cass Sunstein

The World According to Cass Sunstein

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  • In Star Wars, the Force strengthens and empowers the Jedi trained to use it. Yet overconfidence, loss aversion, and inertia plague both the heroes and villains of Star Wars. If only Luke Skywalker or Darth Vader had a lesson in these behavioral forces before their epic lightsaber duel in Episode V.

    On June 10, 2016, influential legal scholar Cass Sunstein offered his Yoda-like wisdom on these lessons to a room of Congressional staffers and policy professionals. Building off ideas in his book The World According to Star Wars, Sunstein explored the many policy lessons buried in the subtext of the Star Wars franchise. Accompanied by a slideshow of stills from the films, Sunstein examined one of the most significant themes in both Star Wars and American identity: the freedom to determine one’s own destiny. “Star Wars is respectful of freedom of choice,” he said. “Its tacit political theme is the direction of your life, that’s yours. It’s no one else’s. It’s up to you.”

    This fundamental idea of freedom of choice informs Sunstein’s theory on nudges, which he introduced in a previous book co-written by Richard Thaler. Nudges are discreet pushes that subtly change people’s behavior, which can ultimately impact social outcomes. A nudge is “respectful of the direction in which people want to go, doesn’t try to override their own wishes, but it tells them how to get there.” When leaders embrace nudges, as the Obama administration did in remodeling the USDA food pyramid into the food plate, the resulting public policy decisions embrace the “immense power of triggering people’s attention by, for example, a warning, a disclosure, a sign which can often pay big public policy dividends.”

    After his presentation, Sunstein joined Jim Tankersley of The Washington Post for a discussion of behavioral economics. Loss aversion, in particular, plays a large role in the behavior of Star Wars’ most beloved characters. Just as Anakin Skywalker turns to the Dark Side in hopes of saving Padmé from death, and just as the Rebellion risks its finest heroes to save Han Solo, people in the real world fear loss. As Tankersley noted, “The Donald Trump ‘Make America Great Again’ appeals because he’s talking about something we had that was lost, for a particular group of folks.” Sunstein added that any political actor seeking change would therefore be wise to call upon a past he or she is trying to restore.

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    Cass Sunstein's Presentation

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    Cass R. Sunstein is currently the Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard. From 2009 to 2012, he was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. He is the founder and director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School. Mr. Sunstein has testified before congressional committees on many subjects, and he has been involved in constitution-making and law reform activities in a number of nations.