Do we know the right thing to do or say on our own, or are we pushed in particular directions? Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their classic work Nudge argue that there are both forces that help us make good decisions and other forces that keep us from making them. “Nudge Theory” argues that our lives are surrounded by “choice architecture” that direct our decision-making.
The Talmud in Kiddushin, however, sees things differently: deep down we all actually do know what’s right. The Rabbis learn this from an oddly constructed verse in this week’s Torah reading of Vayikra. The Torah tells us that when someone comes to bring an offering, “he will offer it,” yakrivenu; at the end of the same verse, the Torah again declares yakriv oto, “he will offer it.” The Talmud learns from this redundancy that one can be forced to bring an offering against one’s will. But this too is problematic, as the same verse also says that the offering will be brought le-retzono, “willingly.” So which is it? Forced, or willingly? The gemara’s answer: kofin oto ad she-omar rotzeh ani, “we force him until he says ‘I want to do it.’” (The Talmud famously also applies the same logic to the person who initially refuses to grant his wife a get.) But what kind of willingness is forced? The gemara concludes that since deep down, the person really wants the atonement that this offering brings, he is considered “willing.”
Sometimes, Sunstein and Thaler explain, there are nudges that push us into bad decisions. They call this “sludge,” which is “any aspect of choice architecture consisting of friction that makes it harder for people to obtain an outcome that will make them better off…” (One of their examples: if getting a COVID-19 vaccine means navigating a terrible website, dealing with piles of paperwork, and driving a long distance to a hospital with a long wait, one has sludge in the way.)
As we clean for Pesach, we should think about the nudges that we put in place in our lives (like stocking the fridge with healthy snacks) as well as the sludge (like the unhealthy ones in the pantry) that we put in our own way. This isn’t only about junk food: we are all guilty at times of selling ourselves short. At the Academy Awards earlier this month, actor Ke Huy Quan accepted his Oscar for Best Supporting Actor, and memorably and tearfully reminded the audience: “Dreams are something you have to believe in – I almost gave up on mine. To all of you out there, please keep your dreams alive!”
Sludge has no place in our lives. The month of Nisan is a great time to start to get rid of it.