OPEN UNIVERSITY MARCH 28, 2008
Every hour of every day, people send angry emails they soon regret to people they barely know (or even worse, their friends and loved ones). Many people have learned a simple rule: Don't send an angry email in the heat of the moment. File it, and wait a day before you send it. But many others haven't learned the rule or don't always follow it. Technology could easily help. Here is a suggestion for those who are able to produce innovations of this kind: A Civility Check that can accurately tell if the email you're about to send is angry and that asks you, "WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. DO YOU REALLY WANT TO SEND IT?" (Software already exists to detect foul language. The Civility Check is more subtle, because it is very easy to send a really awful email message that does not contain any four-letter words.) A stronger version, which people could choose or which might be the default, would say, "WARNING: THIS APPEARS TO BE AN UNCIVIL EMAIL. THIS WILL NOT BE SENT UNLESS YOU ASK TO RESEND IN TWENTY-FOUR HOURS." The Civility Check is a small part of the general program of what Richard Thaler and I call "libertarian paternalism," explored in detail in our just-published book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, available here. The Civility Check seems to us a helpful nudge, and much more could be done, not least in the domain of investments and credit markets. With an appreciation of how and when people blunder, a little behavioral economics, and a few simple steps, private and public institutions could save people from a lot of trouble and even extend their lives--and do so without diminishing freedom in the slightest.