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Weekend Read: Sludge

The behavioral economist Cass Sunstein (author of “Nudge”) has posted a great little paper on SSRN called “Sludge Audits,” about the sticky gunk that keeps the machinery of our lives from running smoothly — and what to do about it. Abstract:

Consumers, employees, students, and others are often subjected to “sludge”: excessive or unjustified frictions, such as paperwork burdens, that cost time or money; that may make life difficult to navigate; that may be frustrating, stigmatizing, or humiliating; and that might end up depriving people of access to important goods, opportunities, and services. Because of behavioral biases and cognitive scarcity, sludge can have much more harmful effects than private and public institutions anticipate. To protect consumers, investors, employees, and others, firms, universities, and government agencies should regularly conduct Sludge Audits to catalogue the costs of sludge, and to decide when and how to reduce it. Much of human life is unnecessarily sludgy. Sludge often has costs far in excess of benefits, and it can have hurt the most vulnerable members of society.

Sludge could be a confusing website, or a poorly constructed form, or an insanely circuitous application process, or a mail-in rebate that you of course never send in. Sludge keeps you from benefits, access, opportunity, pleasure, freedom. Sludge is our enemy.

I love this concept, and I bet you do, too. Your sludge isn’t my sludge. You might laugh at my sludge, and I at yours. But we would lock arms at an anti-sludge rally.

The genius of “sludge” is that, once it’s named and spotlighted, everyone feels it in their lives, in their own ways — and we all want to do something about it. (And why we will buy Sunstein’s book “Sludge” when it comes out.)

“Sludge Audits” is what research thought leadership looks like.

Sludge, of course, hides in plain sight. It has for a long time.

It takes researcher thought leadership to pull it out into the light. To see the white space “sludge” offers for discussion and to fill that space with a compelling argument and POV​. To frame a range of sludges as “sludge,” for scrutiny and analysis and action. 

Takeaway: Researchers, research communicators: what’s the equivalent of “sludge” you or your researchers see in the world?

And when will you let us know about it?