One of my favorite blog posts about behavioral economics was from the year 2017. Maya Bar-Hillel and Cass Sunstein co-wrote it, based on their experiences of having traveled to Stockholm in that year. They were there to celebrate the fact that their colleague, Richard Thaler, had won the Nobel Prize in Economics.

And so naturally, they wrote a blog post about light switches, bathtubs, guardrails and showers. Of course.

The post was about design choices and nudges, and makes for fascinating reading.

The Nobel Award ceremonies in Stockholm in December are a grand affair. Lodging at the Grand Hotel is part and parcel of the grandeur. We enjoyed this privilege in December of 2017, when Richard H. Thaler won the Nobel Prize for his “Contributions to Behavioral Economics”. But this was not an unqualifiedly happy hotel experience. Through a critique of the hotel’s bathroom design, we address a pervasive and even fundamental challenge in everyday life: navigability.
One of Thaler’s best-known and most influential contributions was developed with one of the current authors, and presented in their book Nudge (2008). That book elaborates two central ideas. The first involves nudges: small interventions that gently steer choosers towards, or away from, this option or that without imposing mandates or economic incentives, and without limiting the choice set. The second involves choice architecture, understood as the particulars of the setting within which choices are made, or the framing of the choices themselves. Consider the arrangement of food options in a cafeteria or the listing of items on a menu. Nudges often operate via changes in choice architecture. Automatic (but not binding) enrollment in a pension plan, and automatic payment of credit card bills and mortgages, are nudges. So is a text message reminding people that a bill is due or that a doctor’s appointment is nigh; so are the default settings on computers and cell phones.

As always, please read the whole post. (My word for the day is “finjans“). But the point of interest as regards our blog post today came later on in the post, and to give you context, you’ll have to take a look at this picture, and then the accompanying text:

It is not news that water already in the pipes when one first turns water on is at room temperature at best. In December in Stockholm that means: cold. The water has to run a bit before the hot water arrives. As our bathrooms were designed, someone wishing to shower under the ceiling showerhead could not avoid a startlingly cold dousing. Alas, even after figuring out what knobs and levers to manipulate, there was no alternative to standing directly underneath that showerhead when turning it on! The knobs were simply too far away to be reached with an outstretched arm from a suitable distance. Each shower from that source thus inevitably began with a gulp, a yelp, and a backwards hop, landing one directly on the tub’s drainage hole – placed unusually in the middle of the bathtub.
The design solution is easy enough, since plumbing does not constrain the obvious: the tinkering area – the knobs and levers – should not be beneath a fixed showerhead. This would benefit not only hotel guests, but also maintenance personnel. This is best done at the plumbing installment stage, but can be fixed even at this late stage by extending, even by only a foot, the arm of the water pipe that runs parallel to the ceiling (of course, the protective glass partition would also have to be extended). Lessons: don’t make your design more complex than necessary, and try out your design before adopting it widely.

We’ve all experienced this, of course. And the reason I was inspired to write this post is because of a tweet I came across today morning:

I’m fairly sure Cass Sunstein and Maya Bar-Hillel would wholeheartedly approve of the design choices in this tweet, and I’m equally sure that Parminder Singh would appreciate the difficulty that both academicians faced in Sweden. Maybe the hotel that Parminder Singh is staying at could share some notes with the Grand Hotel in Stockholm?

But for us students of economics, three lessons:

  1. Learn to see like an economist, and once you do, never stop looking. No matter where you are, including your bathrooms!
  2. Learn to make connections across domains. It takes rare old skill to talk meaningfully about finjans, shower heads (four of ’em, that too) and exits towards airports in the same post. Once you have he underlying theory down pat in your own head, you’ll be surprised at how many connections you are able to make.
  3. Write! Write about all of your observations, always and everyday. Don’t worry about who reads the stuff that you write, and feel free to not share it with anybody if you prefer. But write. It is excellent exercise for the brain. You can’t possibly be asking “but what can I write about?” after reading this, surely. Why, academicians talk about bathtubs, even!

And finally, one small correction to Parminder’s excellent tweet, if I may be so bold. That hotel shower gets the Nobel, of course, not the Oscar.

Peace or Economics, you ask?

I say both.