Nudge, Nudge, Nudge. Why Don’t You Ever Think?!

Blog post by Stuart Derbyshire and Nina Powell to motivate their book, Think! The Antidote to Nudge.

Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness was written by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, and first published in 2008. The book had a rapid and tremendous impact. In 2009, the US Government recruited Cass Sunstein to head The Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), and in 2010, Richard Thaler was in London to advise the UK Prime Minister in establishing a “nudge unit”, more formally known as the Behavioural Insight Team. A similar unit was setup in Germany, and another in Japan.

A Nudge is something that influences behaviour but without dictating any particular choice or option. A menu, for example, can be organised so that diners are more likely to choose items that are lower in calories. Placing the number of calories against each menu item, currently favoured by the UK Prime Minister and mandatory since 2018 in America, is an example of a menu nudge. The calorie information doesn’t force the diner to do anything different from what they would have ordinarily done, it merely serves as a reminder, a nudge, tilting the odds towards the choice of lower calorie items. In Singapore, around two-thirds of the population eat at “Hawker Centres” at least four times a week. The abundant Hawker Centres are open air food courts serving an exceptional range of dishes for very reasonable (circa 5 USD) prices. Since around 2015, every Hawker centre has adopted healthier choice symbols provided by the government to formally identify options with fewer calories, and lower fat and salt content. Again, the symbols do not mandate choosing the low calorie, low fat, low salt option, they merely nudge the patron in that direction. Thaler and Sunstein are careful to emphasise that “a nudge is not a mandate, it does not dictate choices. Putting fruit on the front of the menu and chocolate on the back is a nudge but taking chocolate off the menu all together is not. Nudges are not bans.”

Nudge policy can consequently appeal both to those who want better control over people’s choices and to those who want the freedom to make their own choices, and Thaler and Sunstein characterise the use of nudges as libertarian paternalism. Moreover, they argue that libertarian paternalism makes sense because all choices must be made in some context and under some conditions. Where items are placed on a menu will influence what diners eat, similarly where items are placed in the grocery store influences what people buy. How credit card charges are communicated influences how much credit card debt people carry, the relative price of goods influences what people spend, the exact wording of government advice influences whether people follow it, and so on. It makes sense, therefore, to organise the choice context to deliver maximum benefit to consumers and society. If a deliberate manipulation of context can reduce obesity, curb problem drinking, and encourage better retirement planning, then such manipulation is a good thing. People struggle to make the best decisions for their lives, and some decisions involve complexities that pose unreasonable challenges. There is merit in nudge policy making life easier. Who would complain? We would.

The problems with nudge begin when we consider who has the power to arrange the context in which choices are made, and on whose authority they operate. While it is probably true that many people struggle at least some of the time with their diet and other life choices, it is a jump from there to the assumption that people prefer their choices to be nudged by professional dieticians. “Would anyone object” Thaler and Sunstein ask rhetorically, “to putting the fruit and salad before the desserts at an elementary school cafeteria if the result were to induce kids to eat more apples and fewer Twinkie’s?” Well, since they asked. If the decision had been made openly, in full consultation with the teaching staff, the canteen staff, and the parents, and if objections and problems had been fully addressed, then we would not object. But such an approach is vanishingly rare and violates the intent of nudge to provide a quick fix.

Nudge is meant to be easy, but changing human behaviours is rarely straightforward, and the best choices are rarely obvious. Nutritionists argue, for example, over whether the sugar in fruit is a problem or not, whether sugar from carbs is good or bad, what kinds of fat are good or bad, and so on with a myriad of other food choices. It might seem obvious that saving for the future makes sense, but foregoing the trip of a lifetime now and choosing to save for the future is a gamble that doesn’t pay off if premature death or illness deny that future.

The examples so far involve relatively banal nudges associated with eating, saving and shopping. The complications multiply when nudge is applied to issues such as social justice, global warming, workplace efficiency and so on. Conceding to nudge in those complex policy domains means sacrificing some of our most important social decisions to a cabal of experts who nudge us into different hiring practices, commuting habits, and working environments to make the world “better”.

This brings us to the central problem with libertarian paternalism: it undermines individual and collective responsibility. We can understand how a nudge can be attractive, but if someone only makes a choice because of the context then they are not taking personal responsibility for their decisions. Personal responsibility begins with the acceptance that we are the authority when it comes to decisions about our own life, and we must negotiate the consequences of those decisions. Nudge also undermines collective responsibility, which comes from an active citizenry that puts in place policies and procedures that have been openly debated and decided. Even when those policies are “wrong”, we argue that it is still better to implement them because that is how we are taken seriously both individually and collectively. A healthy individual and a healthy society is persuaded by argument and held accountable by outcomes that follow those arguments. Allowing experts to create a context in which our decisions are nudged along a particular path creates a barrier between our decisions and our responsibility, which ultimately provides excuses and infantilises the citizenry. We can’t avoid all nudge, but we believe we should avoid as much nudge as possible and replace nudge with as much thought as possible. That is why we will be writing Think! The Antidote to Nudge.

Stuart Derbyshire is an Associate Professor at the National University of Singapore

Nina Powell is a Senior Lecturer at the National University of Singapore

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Nina Powell

Nina Powell

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Senior Lecturer in Psychology at The National University of Singapore.