As behavioral scientists, Wharton professors Katy Milkman and Angela Duckworth have spent years studying the best ways to “nudge” people with choice-preserving but psychologically wise interventions to help them make better decisions. So, when they invited their friend and colleague Cass Sunstein, a Harvard Law School professor and renowned behavioral economics expert, to talk about nudging, the conversation went deep.

Nudging, sludge, habituation, research fraud, climate change, and the upcoming presidential election were among the topics discussed during the wide-ranging interview, titled “A Conversation about the Past, Present, and Future of Behavioral Science and Public Policy.” The event was hosted by the Behavior Change for Good Initiative, which is co-directed by Milkman and Duckworth.

The scholars shared a lively conversation, with Milkman and Duckworth mining Sunstein for his vast knowledge and experience. In addition to his academic career, he is a former administrator for the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, currently a senior counselor to the Secretary of Homeland Security, and has worked with the United Nations, the European Commission, the World Bank, and other global organizations on issues of law and public policy. He’s also a prolific author of hundreds of articles and dozens of books, including Nudge: Improving Decisions and Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Milkman described it as her “favorite behavioral science book of all time.”

Here are some highlights from the conversation:


Sunstein said behavioral teams all over the world are experimenting with nudging as a way to help the public take up positive behaviors. One of the most common forms of nudging is automatic enrollment in government programs, which makes it easier for people to participate in them.


Sludge refers to administrative or bureaucratic red tape that makes it difficult to enroll in helpful programs or get out of costly subscriptions, and Sunstein said reducing it is quickly becoming one of the most studied aspects of behavioral economics. He said decision-makers are working to reduce the burdens created by sludge. “The war on sludge is really good war, and it has a phenomenal, practical payoff,” Sunstein said. “It can change people’s lives massively so that they can get something they need.”


Sunstein’s latest book is Look Again: The Power of Noticing What Was Always There, written with Tali Sharot. It explains how the disruption of daily habits and routines can help people rejuvenate, find joy, and change. Sunstein said “dishabituation” also leads people to different perspectives, which can break them out of stereotypical thinking and the acceptance of outdated ideas.

Watch the full conversation here: