Nudging the Issue

by | Aug 23, 2010

News here that David Cameron has approved the establishment of a ‘behavioural insight’ unit, led by policy advisor David Halpern, to find ways to implement the ideas of behavioural psychologist Richard Thaler, who is also apparently working with the unit.

Thaler is, together with Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge, a study of humans’ poor and often irrational decision-making processes (such as preferring books with easy-to-remember one-word titles) and how governments can manipulate or ‘nudge’ these processes towards more enlightened choices.

Putting a picture of a fly on a urinal, for example, nudges people to pee more in the urinal, and less on the floor. Creating bins that make a funny noise when you drop things into them encourages people to put more rubbish into them. And so on!

There are other, more far-reaching ways you can use behavioural psychology to affect public decision-making. For example, if you present a policy decision to citizens, you could either offer them a box to tick to sign up to it, or a box to tick if they want to opt out of it. Making people tick a box to opt out makes us more likely to opt in.

Why? Because we’re lazy, bored, distracted, inert and irrational creatures. We’re monkeys, so the government needs to present our choices in such a way as to make us pick the right banana.

Thaler and Sunstein call this sort of social manipulation ‘libertarian paternalism’. People are still free to choose how to live. But, knowing that homo dufus often makes bad decisions, governments and companies should structure the choices they prresent so they pick the more enlightened option.

There are two ripostes to this approach.

1) It has only been proved useful on minor interventions. Musical rubbish bins are fun, but not profoundly transformative.

2) Governments should try to appeal to and develop their citizens’ conscious, rational decision-making processes, not manipulate their limbic systems, even if it is for ‘good’ aims. Who is to say the aims are good?

The same sort of manipulation techniques could just as easily be used by corporations for their own short-term profit – just as tobacco companies used the psychological manipulation techniques of Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud and the grand-daddy of Nudge, to sell their cigarettes. They could also be used by a militaristic government to nudge the people to war (see the video below).

The alternative approach to Nudge has been called Think. It’s a bit more old-fashioned – you try to explain things to people to allow them to make a more free, informed and rational decision. Ridiculous idea, I know…

And a middle ground between Nudge and Think has been suggested by the RSA, called Steer. You nudge people towards decisions, and then explain to them how you did it. The Penn and Teller approach to nudge politics.

I propose an alternative psycho-manipulative approach. I call it Bore: you bang on about policy choices in such a dry, tedious and obfuscating way that the public lose interest, turn on the TV, and leave you to rule the country.


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    Jules Evans is a freelance journalist and writer, who covers two main areas: philosophy and psychology (for publications including The Times, Psychologies, New Statesman and his website, Philosophy for Life), and emerging markets (for publications including The Spectator, Economist, Times, Euromoney and Financial News).

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