Why I’m Not For Nudging

First published in Huffington Post

I was recently at University College London to hear a talk on behaviour change. “Nudging methods … have become increasingly popular” read the blurb. “Underlying all of this, however, is the nagging question of whether it is ethical, desirable or sustainable to be nudging people in a desired direction.” Indeed. “Or, is it a case of technological fudging, where we may be covering over deeper problems?”. Well, yes it is, I thought.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that far from addressing these important questions, the only mention of fudge was when it was passed around to the easily-nudged and apparently infantilised students packed into the lecture theatre. There was no questioning of whether it is really the business of academics and policy-makers to be finding ever more ‘innovative’ ways of engineering a society of individuals dutifully “eating better, exercising more, or reducing our energy consumption”. There was only excitement at the ingenious inventions which Professor Rogers, whose talk it was, and her many peers working in this faddish field of behavioural economics and social psychology, were coming up with to make us do these things.

Whether it was the ‘fun’ musical stairs or foot-shaped floor-lighting designed to lure people away from using lifts and escalators, or the ‘power aware’ cord designed to make people feel guilty about their use of electrical appliances in the home, nobody bothered to ask whether this sort of thing is really a good idea. Whether it was the scannable (and ‘playful’) smiley-face attached to your shopping trolley that gets sadder as you pile in allegedly unhealthy or excessively globe-trotting food; or the Tidy Street project in Brighton that turned the asphalt into a giant graph displaying residents’ energy consumption, nobody seemed to wonder what right they had to make these sorts of interventions.

Are we really so horrendously overweight and unable to make up our own minds about how we get around that we’d rather build cities that require us to expend more effort rather than making life more convenient? Have we really given up on the notion of developing technologies that might solve the energy problem in favour of resigning to becoming slaves to petty energy-saving gimmicks? Isn’t it one of the wonders of modern living that we’re able to eat food from around the world all year round? The only doubt raised was around the dreaded ‘boomerang effect’ where people just don’t do what the behaviour-changers want them to.

The ‘desired behaviour’ – by who exactly? – is stubbornly resisted as the object of the nudge still can’t help but regard themselves as a subject. Even if it is a matter of deciding whether to have fish and chips rather than a salad, as rational and notionally free individuals we still can’t help but recoil at the suggestion that we don’t know what’s good for us. For the truth is that for all their protestations to the contrary the nudgers are not helping us to make decisions, they are seeking to make decisions for us. They have already decided what the ‘desired behaviour’ must be.

The only thing that concerns the behaviour-changer is what technique or method they should employ to bring about that behaviour. The idea of personal autonomy or that we might have the capacity, or even the right, to make decisions for ourselves or run our own lives doesn’t even seem to occur to them. So when I asked Rogers whether she was perhaps being a little patronising or that, for all the pettiness of the interventions, there might be something authoritarian about all this behaviour-changing and nudging, she seemed surprised. “If it works and we’re able to show an impact why not?”, she asked.

As she herself admitted the Tidy Street project didn’t really work. Only two residents 6 months after the project had ended changed their energy consumption behaviour. But that’s not why I have a problem with nudging. You might think that this miserable failure to get the desired results might lead to a questioning of the nudge-paradigm; or to the conclusion that their time could be better spent on something of use to society. But no, for Roberts it only justified the next stage in the research: to find ways of sustaining ‘desired behaviours’ when the behaviour-nudging researchers are not around.

It was only at the end of her talk that she held out the possibility – on behalf of students too starved of a culture of intellectual enquiry to ask the question themselves – that perhaps treating people like children is a bit ‘sneaky’. She even conceded in response to my question that debate is a good thing. But I think we have very different ideas of what this means. I certainly don’t mean yet another technical discussion between proponents of behaviour-change about the best way of doing it. Instead what we’re badly in need of is a very public battle of ideas that lives up to the promise of that wholly misleading blurb. Which reminds me, I’ll be taking part in the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October and discussing Pop-up communities: here to stay? at the Barbican, London.

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.

The Olympics and an Unhealthy Interest in our Behaviour

First published in Huffington Post

The past couple of weeks have been a once-in-a-lifetime treat as we’ve witnessed the spectacle of incredible sporting feats performed by the world’s greatest athletes on our very own doorstep. Indeed, as a resident of E17 I was only a javelin throw away (or so) from the action. I was lucky enough to get tickets to see the legendary Usain Bolt in the 200m heats at the majestic Olympic Stadium and gold medalists Nicola Adams and Katie Taylor in action at the Excel Centre.

Meanwhile, far from joining in the celebrations or marvelling at the extraordinary spectacle of the London 2012 Olympics; the behaviour-police achieved new lows in unfounded and unrelentinglymiserable opportunism. The Games became an unlikely vehicle for tackling everything from child obesity to climate change. We were told that what might look like sports fans were in fact sex tourists exploiting young immigrant women; or drink-fuelled domestic abusers, and carriers of sexually transmitted diseases and a potential flu pandemic.

Neville Rigby, convenor of the highly dubious sounding International Obesity Forum wrote a piece for The Guardian in which he claimed: ‘the Olympic dream is a nightmare that ignores the reality of today’s obesity epidemic’ by allowing ‘peddlers of junk food’ to sponsor the event. That’s Cadbury and Coca Cola to you and me. ‘Successive governments’, he continued, are guilty of ‘swallowing the big food companies’ mantra that healthy eating is all about personal choice’. If that’s the case, then along with the occasional dairy cream egg and diet coke, Neville … so am I!

Rigby was seemingly outraged that anybody, especially an evil multinational, should contradict the received wisdom of the government’s Change4Life campaign. But he shouldn’t have worried. Its instructions for healthy living were given a new lease of life with the Games4Life campaign. Apparently concerned that we might be enjoying ourselves too much this summer with Euro 2012 and then the Olympics of all things keeping us entertained, 2.6 million activity packs were reportedly distributed in an attempt to get people off their well-worn sofas.

For all the hysterical nonsense about how are lives are ruled by the ‘peddlers’ of fizzy drinks and chocolate bars, it is in reality the political class and the state who are really worth worrying about. It is they, and their hectoring friends who are treating us like naughty school children who don’t know what’s good for us. For instance, health secretary Andrew Lansley is reportedly supportive of the so-called ‘make every contact count‘ plan. As Professor Steve Field, chair of the NHS Future Forum explains: ‘A routine dental checkup or eye test … is a chance to offer advice to help someone stop smoking … Collecting medication from a pharmacy is a chance to offer someone help with cutting down on alcohol. A pre-surgery checkup is an opportunity to talk over concerns about smoking, diet and physical activity.’

Is it really any surprise that ‘lifestyle rationing’ is beginning to undermine the notion that all are equally deserving of care and treatment in the NHS, when the medical profession are being urged to take an unhealthy interest in the way people choose to live their lives? When asked byDoctors.net.uk ‘Should the NHS be allowed to refuse non-emergency treatments to patients unless they lose weight or stop smoking?’ over half of doctors responded yes.

Amid all this self-righteous puritanical anti-Olympic spirit I was disappointed to have missed what must have been a laugh at the behaviour-changers expense. The Fattylympics featured the actor who played Roland in children’s TV series Grange Hill back in the 1980s. With events including ‘Rolling with Roland’, ‘Chub-robics’ and ‘Spitting on the Body Mass Index Chart’, it was the kind of irreverent, sacred-cow slaughtering stunt that autonomy advocates like myself would like to see more of.

Welcome to the Big Nudge

First published in Huffington Post

The Big Society has been in the news once again only to take another beating, this time from the Archbishop of Canterbury. Rowan Williams has waded into what should be a debate about state and society, but is instead a wholly predictable moan-a-thon by the left-liberal commentariat. There’ll be more on him later but suffice to say that I for one would have welcomed the input of the supposedly cerebral Williams, if he could have got the discussion beyond the petty politics of the parish pump.

Quite literally in the case of London’s first parish council, in Queen’s Park, since they were abolished half a century ago. Not that this throw-back to the parochial past is all that different in content to the municipal mumblings of their big borough kin. Like every other local authority mission statement those behind it promise a ‘safer, healthier and happier’ time for their new residents. One Westminster councillor, nevertheless, has welcomed the parish as the ‘start of a brand new era in localism‘.

Sadly, he could be right. This sort of thing, bizarrely, tends to be lauded as an example of the Big Society. In fact there is nothing ‘big’ never mind new about the local approach. Add to this the substituting of the long-forgotten notion that it might have something to do with people not depending on the ‘support’ of the state in favour of the politics of the top-down Nudge, and things get very confusing. For all the protests to the contrary – this, the policy-makers’ favourite new buzzword, in fact describes essentially the same paternalistic, nannying, top-down, ever encroaching Big State that it is supposed to do away with. In truth the enthusiasm for Nudging is for something little more than a contracted-out, behaviour controlling, and consequently even more autonomy inhibiting version of the same thing. So not only is the Big Society not big, it has nothing much to do with ‘society’ either.

But the coalition shouldn’t get all the blame for this. As Caroline Slocock, director of Civil Exchange says: ‘The idea has long roots’. As does the community organising movement that Amol Rajan gets so excited about. But why are they in the ascendant now? Could it be that until relatively recently they were eclipsed by the more substantial stuff of politics? The convergence of Blue Labour and Red Tory on this narrowest of middle grounds is not something to be celebrated. It is the logical outcome of the Third Way anti-politics of the post-cold war period. Little has changed in the over nearly quarter of a century since. I suspect Slocock, principal author of the Big Society Audit, is a secret Nudger too. In much the same way that Rajan thinks communities need organisers, she wants charities and other small voluntary sector groups to fill the ‘big society gap’ where society-proper – that is, you and me – should be. It should be ‘given more power’ says Slocock to, like that old lager commercial used to say, get to the poorest, most deprived parts that other openly state-sponsored programmes can’t.

The Big Society was never meant to be a government programme or the long list of bullet-pointed initiatives that Patrick Butler details. The one-and-only point was that it was supposed to get rid of the stifling culture of a meddling illiberal state and let us – the people – get on with it! In practice, for all the anti-statist mythology encouraged by its supporters and indulged by its critics, the coalition has if anything done the opposite. Even if one were to accept the low horizons and modest ambitions – which I don’t – it seems that few have any faith in communities themselves. Trade unionists think that they are so feeble that public spending cuts are ‘destroying‘ them. A rather self-serving argument if ever there was one. And now, far from raising the discussion to a higher plane, the Archbishop of Canterbury has also intervened on behalf of the meek masses. The Big Society is, he says, ‘designed to conceal a deeply damaging withdrawal of the state from its responsibilities to the most vulnerable’. The vulnerable – a group that the great and the good ill-define the better to hide behind them. You get the Big Society you deserve I suppose.

Charity Begins At Home?

First published in Huffington Post

While out converging with Corporate Social Responsibility enthusiasts in trendy Smithfield, our flat screen TV was being 40½ inched through our front living room window. Suffice to say that the finer points of fundraising strategy – the topic of discussion between complimentary glasses of wine – were no longer foremost in my mind. I was instead wondering how the intruders had got below the radar of the curtain-twitchers across our usually uneventful suburban street. But more riling was the response of the authorities or the lack thereof. We were made victims not so much by the smash-and-grab opportunists but by the managerial local constabulary and their therapeutic friends at registered charity (and proposed beneficiary of prison labour) Victim Support. Without wishing to sound ungrateful, their combined efforts, while doing nothing to apprehend the culprits, only succeeded in placing us firmly in the box marked ‘victim’.

‘On being burgled’ wasn’t supposed to be the topic of this, my first, Huffington Post. Next month I will be speaking at Doing it for charity? at the Battle of Ideas in London. The title of the debate alludes to Harry Enfield and Paul Whitehouse’s 1990s satirical Radio 1 DJs Smashy and Nicey. They liked to do lots for ‘charidee’ but didn’t like to talk about it – the joke being, of course, that they could talk about little else. These characters came to mind while listening to Kim Van Niekirk, founder of coffeehouseinitiative.com and Kate Wolfenden of Childreach International, on that unexpectedly fateful evening.

Van Niekirk began by taking us back to a more naïve time, the 1980s, when millions put their hands in their pockets for the bloated babies of Ethiopia. Several Live-Aid and Comic Relief-esque efforts later, and with more swollen bellies to boot, we’re a much more cynical lot. Today’s ‘savvy donor’ takes much more persuading. Or at least they would do, I thought to myself, if fundraisers actuallytried to persuade us. Instead, they are more interested in nudging us, as Wolfenden enthused, into ‘changing habits and behaviours’ that might also ‘help us save lives around the world’. In an age where people are wise to the failures of charity appeals, and when fundraising has become increasingly professionalised, it is ‘all about you, the donor’ said Van Niekirk. But since when was charity about the donor, the ‘extension of what they want to be and what they want the world to be like’ or helping us to ‘become more rounded citizens’? This resorting by a charity sector that has evidently lost its way to the donor-flattering politics of identity is nothing to celebrate.

Whatever happened to the good cause or ‘charidee’ as we used to know it? Surely this should be the focus of fundraising efforts – convincing people that the cause, whatever it might be, is a good thing in itself and worth supporting? While today’s sector seems to have lost track of what charity is all about, it seems to want to turn the rest of us into self-regarding Smashys and Niceys. More worrying still is the petty-authoritarian streak. Presumably resigned to the fact that they can’t make much of a difference in the world anymore, potential donors are being asked not just to donate money but to see the ills of the world through the prism of their politically-incorrect lifestyles. Whether its eco-guilt tripping with Van Niekirk’s green light switches, or financial gimmicks like Wolfenden’s loyalty cards. There’s no attempt to engage us as thoughtful, compassionate types who might just be interested in helping our fellow human beings, without it having to be all about us.

Having said that, sometimes charity does begin at home. Our neighbours rallying around, with their kindly enquiries, shared anxieties and sugary mugs of tea, couldn’t have been more charitable.

A nudge away from freedom

The signs were there. While talking publicly about his big society, behind the scenes Cameron was urging colleagues to tuck into Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Indeed, this publication, marking one of the more sinister developments in social policy, was required reading not just for the Tories but for the political class as a whole. But surely this had nothing to do with the big society?

Nudging is all about the state finding clever new ways of getting us to make the ‘right’ choices, for example not smoking, eating healthily, and recycling like good ‘active’ citizens (as Matthew Taylor, chief executive at the RSA likes to see us).

The big society, so I thought, is based on people getting on with it and doing things for themselves, not relying on the state to make decisions for them. Well, I got that wrong.

At a discussion late last year, the great and the good of the voluntary sector assembled to hear Taylor turn what was generally regarded as inconsequential into something more worrying. He explained, without a dissenting voice, that the big society is all about changing people’s behaviour.

Behaviour change couldn’t be more in vogue. Public health advocates might have pulled out of the government’s public-private ‘responsibility deal’, and some have even expressed doubts about the effectiveness of nudging. But their enthusiasm for telling us how to live our lives goes on unabated.

None other than the RSA is running a project on nudging us to engage in ‘prosocial’ behaviour. The result is a disturbingly one-eyed and amoral perspective on a vast array of social problems, from murder rates to organ donation. It’s not about argument and persuasion, economics or politics, apparently. But about creating the sort of environment that encourages us to scurry rat-like in this or that direction.

Nudging is all about pulling our levers until the desired policy outcome is achieved. But as Paul Ormerod acknowledges in N Squared (pdf), sometimes just nudging isn’t enough. We have the annoying habit of doing our own thing. And yet, rather than pointing to this as a fatal flaw he implies that this tendency to stray doesn’t make us – at the risk of mixing my metaphors – any less sheep-like. We can still be made to follow the herd or obey the ‘network effect’ as he would have it. Thus, the humble nudge might be amplified into something more akin to an almighty shove.

So much for the idea of the citizen (active or otherwise) with a mind of his own, and goodbye to any notion of personal freedom. Whatever the big society is, this diminishing of the political subject can mean just one thing. We are not being engaged in it. We are being nudged towards it.

I’ll leave the last word to Andy Gibson of Mindapples, something of a nudging enthusiast. He thinks it has an ‘important role to play in improving the design of public systems and spaces’. Yet even he is disturbed enough by the ‘implicit paternalism’ that underlies it to ask the one question that nobody else seems to be asking: ‘How can we be trusted to run our communities, deliver public services and control local planning decisions when we cannot also be trusted to make informed decisions about feeding ourselves or raising our children?’. Quite.