When a nudge just isn’t enough


‘Nudge’, a book written by American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in 2008, was eagerly devoured by the UK’s ideas-lite apolitical elite at the time. And has become the reference-point for policy wonks intent on changing people’s behaviour ever since. For those of you who haven’t read it, the authors describe their ideal as a situation whereby so-called ‘choice architects’ go about ‘attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better’. They don’t talk too much about the validity of making that judgement or who should make it but you can rest assured that it isn’t you and I.

Of course, nudging came as second nature to politicians who, like Baroness Neuberger, chair of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee, already believed that behaviour change is ‘one of the key things that government’s do’. Indeed, so eagerly received was it by those already obsessively intervening in the minutiae of people’s lives – but lacking a supposedly scientific justification for doing so – that few questioned the contradictions involved. For instance, how could they – so wedded to the idea of the Big Society, localism and the extension of ever more ‘people power’ – also support an ethos that seeks to make decisions for people? And how could nudging be both Libertarian and Paternalist as Thaler and Sunstein incoherently claimed?

Nudging is a ‘relatively weak, soft, and nonintrusive type of paternalism’, they maintain, at least compared with what went before, and therefore freedom-loving types should welcome it. They argue, for instance, that instead of government’s banning junk food, supermarkets should arrange their food displays in a way that encourages healthy eating. But is this really any better than explicit state paternalism? I don’t think so. The fact that this type of behaviour control is designed to sneak below our radars actually makes it more not less intrusive, in as far as it more effectively intrudes upon our autonomy and our capacity to run our own lives according to our own choices freely made.

The reality of behaviour change is worse still. In a report published by Neuberger’s committee on behaviour change, we learn that the behavioural scientism of nudging isn’t enough to make us change our ways. There need to be a ‘wider array of interventions’, she says, including the old-fashioned imposition of regulations and legislation that Thaler and Sunstein’s approach was supposed to nudge aside. They went further still recommending that the coalition-created and Orwellian-sounding Behaviour Insights Team installed at the Cabinet Office – and otherwise known as the Nudge Unit – should have its stay extended beyond its intended two years. This will give it more time to evaluate the efficacy of state interventions in the nation’s behaviour.

The authors of the British Academy report Nudging Citizens Towards Localism? acknowledge a ‘possible tension’ presented by the new behaviour change paradigm. But again it is one of means – how best to change people’s behaviour – not ends – whether it is a legitimate thing to do in the first place. They only ask whether a decentralised nudge is ‘a more legitimate and self-sustaining form of behaviour change’ than one driven by central government diktat. Either way, there need to be ‘more experiments’ apparently ‘to encourage behaviour change and citizen participation in public decisions’. They want to develop ‘interventions that, as well as nudging citizens, encourage them to think’. Something that we apparently don’t already do. At least not to their satisfaction.

That this is patronising and illiberal should go without saying. But the doublespeak is something else. The more we become objects of behaviour-led policy interventions, the freer we are as citizens and the more legitimate are the decisions we make. So say the behaviour-changers.

2 thoughts on “When a nudge just isn’t enough

  1. Well written post, but I believe that the description of nudge that you give is mixed too much up with politics resulting in a couple of mistakes.

    For instance, the text fall into a common mistake when asserting that “this type of behaviour control is designed to sneak below our radars.” In fact, that is not necessarily true. Of course, people as well as politicians are most impressed by counter-intuive nudges that work around our conscious decision making, but think of the paradigm-example of the fly-in-the-urinal. That actually works by prompting conscious decision making via salience by aspects in a way that allows you to resists conformity, even pee on the wall. So the picture should be more nuanced.

    Also, there is some conflation in the text between “decision-making” and “behavior”. We should really be careful when trying to influence other people’s decision making, prompt it “yes”, but “influencing” it is something else that cannot trivially be done in a democracy. In turn, behavior is something broader, and certain behaviors are not the product of decision making. There’s currently a video of a woman falling down on the metro tracks with her young child somewhere in the US. This happened to misplaced attention. Are we allowed to nudge in such cases – I believe so, and it is already done on every street-corner in London. So again, nuances matter.

    I hope you find these comments of constructive use.

  2. Thanks for your response Pelle. I don’t think that I mix up Nudge with politics too much. Quite the opposite. The rise of the politics of behaviour, and particularly nudging, is a consequence of the emptying out of a place once occupied by politics proper. Politics used to be all about people making decisions about the best course of action and then acting upon the world. That has been replaced by the notion of government and other agencies acting on the individual. Frankly I think the much-cited urinal example takes the piss! If it was just a matter of helping men to avoid peeing on the floor, it would hardly be worth debating. What is the difference between ‘prompting’ and ‘influencing’ a decision? Either way, the suggestion that we need to be nudged presumes that the nudger knows better, and that the right outcome can be determined in advance and from without. While I’m all for clever design of the environment that makes our lives easier and maybe (just maybe) safer – where there are conscious decisions to be made, we and we alone must be allowed to make those decisions.

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