Who is nudging whom?

Cass Sunstein has been visiting the UK and last week I attended a breakfast at which both he and the LSE’s Paul Dolan spoke. Prof Sunstein’s latest book (which I have read) is [amazon_link id=”1476726620″ target=”_blank” ]Why Nudge?[/amazon_link], and Prof Dolan’s (which I haven’t yet) is [amazon_link id=”0241003105″ target=”_blank” ]Happiness by Design[/amazon_link].

 [amazon_image id=”0300197861″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (The Storrs Lectures)[/amazon_image]    [amazon_image id=”0241003105″ link=”true” target=”_blank” size=”medium” ]Happiness by Design: Finding Pleasure and Purpose in Everyday Life[/amazon_image]

As ever, the evidence about the effectiveness of various nudges is impressive. Nor is there any answer to the point that some choice architecture is inevitable, the only issue is whether you want it to be the status quo or something that can achieve better outcomes. But neither speaker could answer the question I have about the legitimacy of nudging: who decides what is ‘better’? Is it the (largely) white, male, middle class experts who work in the policy world? What will the wider consequences be of adopting nudges that get ordinary people to pay more income tax and cheat less on benefits, without looking for nudges that get bankers to pay themselves lower bonuses or extract more corporate tax revenues from big companies?

Both speakers made some interesting points, though, about the research agenda. There are conflicting behavioural findings to be somehow reconciled, more needs to be understood about how context makes a difference to outcomes, and there is a straightforward need for much more evidence from RCTs.

Fascinating stuff. Surely the fact that we can’t not nudge in some way makes the legitimacy question all the more urgent.

11 thoughts on “Who is nudging whom?

  1. On a more serious note, Governments intervene in all sorts of ways. We could ask exactly the same questions about their legitimacy.

    Is it right that a (likely white, male, middle class) politician agrees to stringent immigration controls which greatly reduce the opportunities of the (likely non-white, non-middle class) starving millions in the underdeveloped world? This is a far more coercive policy than a nudge, but we can and should argue over its morality and legitimacy.

    Those who wish to nudge us are merely intervening in our lives in a subtler matter.

    In short, nudging policies and more traditional policies all influence our freedoms to choose and act. Questions about their legitimacy should apply to both.

  2. I complete agree with Steven. We also pointed it out in the paper “Nudge and The Manipulation of Choice”, The European Journal of Risk Regulation. In fact, when the question of legitimacy is raised in this way it is a case of information selection bias (see Daniel Gilbert Stumbling on Happiness, p. 99-101 for some amusing cases and InfoStorms by me and Vincent F. Hendricks for some less amusing cases) – i.e. focusing on the question of legitimacy and nudge, we forget to apply the question across the board and ask ourselves whether the question really pertains to the issue at hand… or the domain as such:)

    • Your logic is undeniable, if the argument is that legitimacy of any kind of authority can be questioned. But my hypothesis is that voters would object more to the realisation that the techniques of ‘the hidden persuaders’ are being applied to them by the government – this is an empirical question, & I don’t know of any efforts to look at it. Nudge techniques embed in a covert way the assumption that the powers-that-be know best, whereas public policy decisions justified in traditional ‘rational’ ways have to be explicit about the basis for claiming it.

      • I would argue that many traditional policy interventions also embed the “powers-that-be-know-best” assumption, and that many policies have not been justified before the majority of voters who would probably be ignorant of many policies and their consequences.

        And I think it naive that many policies are justified in rational ways. For example, the Ebola screenings seemed to be a response to media panic than to rational medical advice. Many policies are devised under such conditions.

        I understand the point that it is their covertness that makes nudging more controversial – but partly, I think, it is the newness of such policies.

        Traditional policies are so old-hat, often made long ago in different circumstances, and we have such status quo bias, that their legitimacy is not questioned enough.

          • You’ve raised two really important question, Diane which go right to the heart of the matter. “Nudge” is a manipulation that relies on us not realising we are being manipulated. This is an inescapable conclusion of a behaviourist approach.

            But there is an even bigger problem, which is that our questions set boundaries on what answers we might expect. I wrote about both of these problems here:

            … Cameron and Osborne had been sold the sizzle, not the steak.
            Beneath the clumsy jargon of this “new” psychology (rife with ad hoc neologisms like “choice architecture” and “framing”) is a world in which humans are rats in a lab experiment – fearful and imitative, responding simply to crude physical stimuli like shocks or flashing lights.
            The “model human” that Nudge constructs lacked moral autonomy – the ability to make sensible choices (surely part of any respectable Conservative, or even any humanist tradition). People may indeed make odd choices, but their reasons for doing so may be complex and subtle. They may include culture and tradition, for example – but there’s no room for this in the mechanistic Nudge account. Nor is the difference between us a factor – some of us are risk-thirsty, others risk-averse. Context is everything, and the crude reductionism of Nudge discards much of this context.
            There are other perils for policy-makers too. It absolves the political elite from creating bold or optimistic ideas and explaining to them us, the electorate, as if they we are grown-ups. As one critic pointed out, “it cannot make a poor healthcare system into a good one and it cannot generate competing visions of a better tomorrow where none exists.”
            You can’t Nudge your way to a better NHS.


            Much of what is called behavioural insight is simply good design and writing, with some scientific woo sprayed on, as the Donor Card story suggests. I don’t think many of us would want Government communications to be badly written or poorly designed!

            I appreciate that Cass and Sunstein have books to sell, while conducting scattergun, anecdotal experiments should keep psychologists employed for years. But I’m struggling to see how it has any place in today’s politics, where people already feel detached from the political elites.

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