Nudging the Issue

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. (more…)