Sunday, April 13, 2008

Sunday dollars+sense: The angry email catcher

Have you ever sent an email that you wish you hadn't? And what on earth does that question have to do with global warming?

The connection is the idea of a “nudge”, which we discussed here last week.

Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein from the University of Chicago are promoting the idea of a “nudge” to get us to get us to relatively painlessly cut our greenhouse gas emissions.

In their book Nudge, they describe what happened when Southern California Edison gave each of its customers an ambient orb, which was a ball that glowed red when they were using lots of power and green when they were not.

They cut their peak energy consumption 40 percent.

They call the idea “libertarian paternalism” - no one was forced to use less electricity, just paternalistically nudged.

Not everyone likes the idea...

A Harvard economics professor Edward Glaeser has complained that it is worse than outright paternalism. At least when an authority introduces a regulation it has to justify it. People can rebel. With nudges there is often no accountably and no opportunity to rebel. They are about manipulation - something we shouldn't want our authorities to get good at.

But Thaler and Sunstein are undeterred, and their ideas are getting more creative. Among them a voluntary savings account for smokers trying to give up. It would have the unusual feature that if the would-be non-smoker failed a urine test some months later the savings would disappear and be sent to charity.

And their favorite: the angry email catcher. It is always best to think twice before sending an angry email, and then probably not to send it. Their yet-to-be-designed system would help by detecting an angry email in draft and popping up a message saying, WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. DO YOU REALLY AND TRULY WANT TO SEND IT?”

A stronger version would say WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. THIS WILL NOT BE SENT UNLESS YOU ASK TO RESEND AFTER TWENTY-FOUR HOURS.” It would be possible to bypass the delay, but it would require work, perhaps putting in a password.

The customers of a few failed Australian financial institutions might be wishing their computers had been fitted with something similar. Perhaps a message saying: WARNING. YOU ARE ABOUT TO BORROW LOTS OF MONEY TO BUY SHARES THAT CAN FALL AS WELL AS RISE IN VALUE. ARE YOU REALLY PREPARED FOR WHAT WOULD HAPPEN IF THEY FALL?”

Edward L Glaeser, Paternalism and Psychology, Regulation, Vol. 29, No. 2, pp. 32-38, Summer 2006

Richard H Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein,
Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron, The University of Chicago Law Review, Volume 70 Fall 2003, Number 4

Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein,
Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, available Mar 31, 2008 ISBN: 9780300122237

Thaler and Sunstein's website:

UPDATE: Blogger fmark alerted me to the fact that in the Endora email system, such a thing does exist.

"MoodWatch™ is a new language tool that acts as an emotion monitor for your email that flags aggressive language and calls it to your attention."

It even grades your email: