Behavioural Public Policy or Nudging: Good or Bad?

(This blog post is based on a research article currently under review in a scientific journal. Once published, a more extensive argument will be discussed in the blog).

I have been reading and thinking about nudging for over four years now and it never stops to amaze me. Many of the readers of this blog will be familiar with the well-known book by Thaler and Sunstein “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness” released in 2009 and winning Richard Thaler a Nobel prize in economics later (of course the prize was given to his ouvre not limited to just one book). The wave of behaviouralism, a branch of social sciences that focuses on human behaviour as not just conditioned by rational thinking of losses and wins, has become only greater in the last years with promiment economists, psychologists and political scientists embracing this paradigm.

A nudge is a behavioural hint in the form of information, location or timing, that shifts behaviour of individuals towards one that is considered desired. An important element of nudge is that is keeps the choice for the individual, being nudged does not mean being forced. Also, everything that offers an economic incentive for a choice is not a nudge, a popular mistake made by many commentators or columnists who discuss bonuses or discounts as nudges. So what is the debate about nudging?

Pro-nudge commentators state that nudge is a great innovation as it works in practice, remains within the remit of libertarian ideology since subjects retain the choice, and costs very little to implement. What the proponents of nudge do not explicitly discuss, is that environments are not so easily changeable and are not just about the physical context such as the location of a healthy fruit in a shop. There are cultural, emotional and experiential elements to how environments and landscapes function. Furthermore, the same nudges will work differently in different cultures since psychological hints and shortcuts may not be as universal as the authors of “Nudge” suggest. There is much of adjusting, pragmatically choosing and deciding what works and what does not in the process of nudging citizens in particlar contexts.

Anti-nudge commentators tend to see nudges as being a consistent category of tools that engage only (or mostly) subconscious faculties of individuals and that are per se against deliberation. These commentators also disregard the ways in which deliberative strategies (think) are combined with nudges, or how they can enhance each other. John et al. (2010) earlier provide some examples of how nudges may be employed together with the community-building initiatives, or how nudges may be used to encourage citizens to participate in public life. Also the other way around is possible, that is how communities may get together to decide on particular nudges that would work well in their particular contexts.

We need to move away from the caricatured versions of nudge and onto a debate that is less polarised than it is now. These discussions have implications for ideas on deliberative democracy and citizenship since the ontology of a human being is at hand here, how we as humans decide and act. How this may take place is a subject for more research including experimental work from various areas and geographies where behavioural insights are being used.

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