When Cass Sunstein ’78, Robert Walmsley University Professor, won the Holberg Prize a few years ago for his academic scholarship, he was cited as “one of the most wide-ranging, original, prolific, and influential scholars of our time.” A secret to his success? He loves to write, especially when an idea gives him a certain feeling that compels him to immerse himself in a topic. Known for the book “Nudge” and other writing on behavioral economics, he also has written on freedom, social media, impeachment, and topics as diverse as Star Wars. His most recent book is “Bounded Rationality: Heuristics, Judgment, and Public Policy” (written with Sanjit Dhami), and he’s working on a book on how to interpret the Constitution. Sunstein spoke to the Bulletin about how he decides what to write about, whether he’d rather write than play squash (he competed on Harvard’s national championship squash team as an undergrad), and who the best writer in his household is.
On the HLS website, you’re credited with 70 books that you’ve written, co-written, or edited, an average of about two a year. That’s on top of hundreds of articles. How do you manage that?
If I do something that has quality, I feel very grateful for that. If I do a lot of things, I feel maybe slightly embarrassed that there are so many. So, I don’t feel proud of the number of books. I’m hopeful that some of them are not useless. If that’s true, that’s what I feel good about. I feel that to write is a pleasure. And I don’t suffer when I write. Just before this call, my dogs woke me up early, and I was rewriting a chapter from a coming book, and I enjoyed it. To have an idea is harder. And to know what would be worth publishing, it’s important to have a filter. I have more than 10 books that failed. They just weren’t good enough, and I have a lot of pages for some of them, but I don’t like them. If you write a certain number of words every day, you will, by the end of a certain number of months, have a book, at least in terms of length.
How do you decide on the topics you write on?
One question is whether I have something that’s a little like a tingly feeling in my neck. If I do, that’s a very good clue that I have something that I should write about. Whether it should be an article or a book is unclear. For the Constitution book, I have one idea I’m excited about. It’s less original than I thought, but I’m very excited about it. I just presented it at Harvard yesterday at a conference, and I felt the equivalent of the tingle. And so I’m hopeful that book, which is right now in very late draft, will work because of that. There have been projects where I’ve had a lot of excitement about the topic. But I’ve learned after maybe months of effort that it won’t work, because I don’t have anything interesting enough to say about it.
People might be surprised that you’ve written on topics like “Star Wars” and the Beatles. Why do you gravitate toward these popular culture subjects?
My main focus really is on more standard academic topics. The “Star Wars” book (“The World According to Star Wars”) and the work on the Beatles, that was more I just was curious and loved it. I was really motivated by the topic rather than the reception. I wanted to write it much more than I wanted anyone to read it, which is I think a very good foundation for work. The book I’m now doing about constitutional interpretation, I can’t say I would write it if no one read it. But I am engaged in it, with not quite the fun of Star Wars. I would write it even if very few people read it.
You’re known in particular for your writing on behavioral economics like “Nudge” (written with Richard Thaler). What sparked your interest in that topic?
I can’t remember any bigger tingle than the behavioral stuff: People dislike losses more than they like gains; people are present biased; people make mistakes about risk. To say it’s interesting is much too weak. It’s at the core of our species. And it’s really fun.
Did you have any inkling of how much attention “Nudge” would get?
None. Thaler and I did two papers, one called “Libertarian Paternalism Is Not an Oxymoron” and one called “Libertarian Paternalism.” And the interest in these papers was wildly beyond our expectations. So we thought we had touched a chord. We decided we would write a book on libertarian paternalism, because people seemed interested in that, and maybe we could do better than we did in the economics and law review papers. We had no clue it would have the resonance that it has. Even now, I’m flabbergasted to see when some nation creates a nudge or has an initiative that is really creative and really helpful for a population, which Thaler and I couldn’t have envisioned but are inspired to see.
You said earlier that you found writing fun. Have you always felt that?
I like squash even better than writing. Dinner with a great friend is better even than writing, except when writing is really going well. Then it can be even better than squash or dinner with the friend. But I’ve loved it since high school. In high school, I wasn’t at all like a nerd. My grades were good, but I wasn’t reading and writing and staring at Dickens all the time, by any means. But I just enjoyed writing. I got interested in Samuel Beckett and Edward Albee in high school, and I wrote about them. I’m sure what I wrote was terrible, but I really liked writing it.
Your wife is a writer too [Samantha Power ’99, William D. Zabel ’61 Professor of Practice in Human Rights and administrator of the U.S. Agency for International Development, who wrote the Pulitzer Prize-winning “‘A Problem from Hell’: America and the Age of Genocide”]. What is your involvement in each other’s writing process?
We read, as suits us, each other’s work in draft. I read her book “The Education of an Idealist” multiple times. And she’s a fantastic writer. She’s a better writer than I am. I’m a more joyful writer, but she’s a better writer. And I would comment on what worked and what didn’t. She was actually extremely helpful with my “Star Wars” book and with my impeachment book. She had very strong views about what was structurally wrong with both books, and she made them a lot better.
Do you feel like you’re going to keep writing as long as you feel the tingle?
You know, there are times when I’m teaching three courses, and I do things that are not academic some of the time. I work with international organizations, some on public health and safety and other issues. I really love that. So if there’s a time when the writing isn’t going as swimmingly as other times, that’s fine. I like writing. If I stop liking it, I’ll do it less. But I don’t expect that to happen.
This interview has been condensed and edited for clarity.