Nudge and Democracy

by Henry on November 10, 2011

Cosma Shalizi and I have an article on Thaler/Sunstein and democratic politics in the current issue of New Scientist. The title is a bit misleading (our problem with nudging isn’t that it’s coercive; it’s that it doesn’t have much in the way of feedback), but we’ll stick by the main text.

“Nudging” is appealing because it provides many of the benefits of top-down regulation while avoiding many of the drawbacks. Bureaucrats and leaders of organisations can guide choices without dictating them. Thaler and Sunstein call the approach “libertarian paternalism”: it lets people “decide” what they want to do, while guiding them in the “right” direction.
…This points to the key problem with “nudge” style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.
… democratic arrangements, which foster diversity, are better at solving problems than technocratic ones. Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. It is also, obviously, better at defending those interests when bureaucrats do not mean well.

{ 73 comments }

1

Neil 11.10.11 at 5:33 am

In a forthcoming paper, I argue that nudging can be used to get people to make the choices that they choose. In other words, nudging can be used to overcome the problem of weakness of will. And Thaler and Sunstein clearly intend something like that wrt some of their nudges (IIRC; personally, if I were to defend nudging-style policies – and I do – I would look elsewhere for their articulation (and I do)). So for instance default options in 401-k policies, if I have the US terminology right, are ways of getting people to choose what they themselves identify as their goals. We can identify goals either on an individual basis, as in precommitment limits on gambling, or by polling (as with the 401-K example).

2

Meredith 11.10.11 at 5:55 am

Yes. Though, for “interests” I might substitute or add the word “desires.”
When I first heard “nudge,” I couldn’t help but also here “muddle,” as in that wonderfully British “muddle through.” As if “nudge” is top-down and “muddle through” is bottom-up. A wonderful tug-of-war.

3

Dave 11.10.11 at 5:58 am

The “nudge” sounds like what I imagine the “poke” to be on Facebook.

4

Bloix 11.10.11 at 6:47 am

The problem with this argument is that it’s impossible not to “nudge.” For example, to give people a choice about a program, it must either be opt-in or opt-out. You can’t avoid having a default option. If the default is that they don’t get to use the program, you’ve nudged a lot of people out of it. Thaler/Sunstein have identified a phenomenon that exists and argue that it should be utilized positively instead of simply effecting things randomly. You’re appearing to argue that it would be wrong to acknowledge the phenomenon and better just to let it do what it does even if it means that programs will fail as a consequence.

5

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.10.11 at 7:12 am

Why, I’m sure the technocratic elite is very good at discovering technocratic elite’s real interests, and how to advance them.

6

Scott Martens 11.10.11 at 8:35 am

I have some difficulties with the examples in the article. I know, it’s a short piece for public consumption and aimed very explicitly at Thaler and Sunstein, and that may account for it. But organ donation is something I think most people are okay with now, and the ones who are against are very strongly opposed to it. An opt-out better corresponds to the social structure of people’s preferences today, and we might just as well say the law now reflects that more accurately rather than calling it “nudging” or “the coercion that dare not speak its name.”

For pensions some of the same problems arise. Individuals have to choose between spending now and spending later. It is not a matter of coercing them to make the right choices – spending now is often the right thing to do – but a matter of the *state’s* preferences. If we acknowledge that we do not want, or will not allow, the elderly to die on street corners, we are compelled to make some provision for them. The state exercises it authority to compel people to save through pension schemes, but offers an opt-out that it knows very few people will take *because it needs political cover.* Not everyone agrees that the state has a legitimate right to prefer not letting people die on street corners.

And Obama’s “semi-surreptitious” tax cuts are also better explained in the context of current politics than a “nudge” model. If the state has a legitimate goal in encouraging consumption, a far simpler and probably more efficient solution without any coercive element would have been to simply cut a check for every non-home-owning family below the poverty line and send it to them. That money would have gone directly into consumption with next to none ending up in savings instruments and probably very little in debt-payment. Encouraging spending is only nudging when you are unwilling to allocate money for it. Giving people free money is about the least coercive thing the state can do.

I agree with the general point of the article about the significance of the feedback mechanisms of democracy over technocratic rule. There needs to be a public policy version of Hayek to make that point strongly. Mettler’s work in decision-making sounds to me like a strong justification for demarchic mechanisms over electoral politics, but “democracy is better than all the thinking you know better in the world” is something people should hear more often. And libertarian paternalism is atrocious. But I’m not sure the point has really been made. Libertarians will object as soon as the state is permitted any sort of legitimate preference; technocrats will point to electoral politics and say “you can’t tell me that’s the best solution.”

And the connection between questions of coercion and agent diversity seems weak. Agent diversity is a fine thing but I don’t see that it has anything much to say about the role of coercion – soft or hard – in state policy.

7

Harald Korneliussen 11.10.11 at 10:20 am

Why does it have to be a technocratic elite? What if the decision makers are truly representative of the people they are nudging?

They could be that, and still wish to nudge, because they had time to look into the issues that most people don’t. The ideal democratic decision maker shares values and interests with the people he represents, but hopefully has time to be better informed, on account of being selected to make decisions.

The closer our decision makers are to this ideal, the less we need to worry about nudging – or for that matter, more serious pushing. But if our decision makers are so removed from the people that they can’t even be trusted to nudge, then we have far bigger problems, problems that won’t be solved by outlawing nudging.

8

Ebenezer Scrooge 11.10.11 at 10:54 am

“Libertarian paternalism is seductive because democratic politics is a cumbersome and messy business. Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them. “

Tell that to the Singaporeans. A well-functioning democracy is great, but like pure communism, I’m not sure it has been tried yet. And democracies easily tip over into fascism (a true disease of democracy) or legitimated oligarchy. Fascism is great in discovering people’s real desires–smashing other people. And oligarchy is great at discovering the oligarchs’ real interests and how to advance them.

No, I’m not advocating benevolent dictatorships–they rely too much on Lee Kuan Yews, and have horrible succession problems even if you find your Lee Kuan Yew. But democracy might be best leavened with more than a bit of technocracy, such as the administrative state and judicial review. Alex Hamilton (admittedly no friend of any kind of democracy) had a nice discussion of this in Federalist 78 (iirc).

9

LizardBreath 11.10.11 at 1:04 pm

I don’t understand the article at all. Given the authors, this is probably a failure in reading rather than a problem with the article, but isn’t Bloix obviously right in 3 — the ‘nudge’ concept is about recognizing that things like default-setting inevitably do nudge people toward certain actions, and so the nudging effects of policy decisions should be recognized and directed toward desirable ends rather than ignored and allowed to operate randomly?

And then, why is there a different problem with feedback on nudgy policies than with any other set of policies? I don’t understand the distinction being made between democratic policies and nudgy policies. If, say, Congress passes a law requiring all employers with 401K plans to enroll all their employees at the maximum contribution level unless the employees opt out or change the level, that’s a policy intended to nudge the employees to save more. But it’s also a policy made by democratically elected legislators, and if people don’t like it, they can make their feelings known at the polls, just like with any other policy.

There’s got to be something fundamental about the argument I’m missing.

10

Watson Ladd 11.10.11 at 1:11 pm

Henry, any argument you make about a technocratic elite applies just as well to the managers of the welfare state unless I am missing something.

11

chris 11.10.11 at 1:16 pm

Even so, democracy is far better than even the best-intentioned technocracy at discovering people’s real interests and how to advance them.

Is it in my real interest to enjoy a tasty cheeseburger, or avoid gaining more weight and raising my cholesterol any further? My voluntary behavior may not be a reliable guide to the answer. Or to take a more serious example, is it in my real interest to take a vacation or save more for retirement? Without a tax-funded forced retirement scheme practically everyone saved too little; that’s established historical fact. Were the technocratic elite wrong to impose Social Security on us?

What is a real interest and how do you know when you have found it? Without an answer to this notoriously slippery question, I don’t see how you can begin to evaluate the merits of different political systems at advancing people’s real interests.

ISTM that the commonness of self-defeating behavior renders the idea that people’s interests can best be discovered by asking them simplistic, at best. In a way it’s akin to the freshwater economic assumption that people will only take economic actions that are in their interests.

12

mw 11.10.11 at 2:04 pm

For example, to give people a choice about a program, it must either be opt-in or opt-out. You can’t avoid having a default option.

Sure you can. For example, there was a scandal in the U.S. a few years back where college officials were getting kickbacks from lenders to list those lenders as ‘preferred providers’ (e.g. the default option):

http://articles.latimes.com/2007/mar/23/business/fi-loans23

But there was simply no reason in that case for there to be a default option at all. The choice of funding (a lender on the school’s list or a different lender entirely, or friends and family, or work during school) ought to have been left up to the student. That is also a clear case where’ technocrats who don’t mean well’ can use nudges to help themselves and their cronies rather than the supposed beneficiaries of the disinterested paternalism.

13

bianca steele 11.10.11 at 3:00 pm

LizardBreath @ 9: And then, why is there a different problem with feedback on nudgy policies than with any other set of policies?

Is the problem not just that the nudge is adjusting people’s preferences consciously, instead of focusing on giving them choices, but that the nudge focuses on a part of the policy that isn’t usually considered the important part? (I just posted something on this and why it’s undemocratic here.

14

Tom Hurka 11.10.11 at 3:01 pm

State pension schemes — Social Security, Canada Pension Plan — don’t just nudge, they coerce people into putting money aside for their old age. Is that a case of technocrats falsely claiming to know people’s interests better than the people do, so the schemes should be wound down? As several upthread have said, weakness of will, shortened time-horizon, etc. are pretty familiar phenomena.

15

cian 11.10.11 at 3:06 pm

ISTM that the commonness of self-defeating behavior renders the idea that people’s interests can best be discovered by asking them simplistic, at best.

Plus people often don’t know what they want, or which is in their best interest; as most product designers learn to their cost at some stage. Ask a bunch of people in a focus group, or one one one, what they want and they’ll tell you. Build it for them, and they’ll probably hate it. Its not because they’re stupid, its just that predicting what you’ll want in the future is very difficult. Not that designers are necessarily much better at independently working out what people want of course.

16

StevenAttewell 11.10.11 at 3:09 pm

My beef with the nudge theory is that, as I’ve read it, it at least implicitly argues that behavioral modification policies are a superior mechanism than provision of goods and services, following from a rather individualistic perspective. This has always seemed to me too close to the Victorian belief that education could conquer all problems – after much trial and error, the Victorians eventually discovered that actually accomplishing things in unemployment, health, poverty, and so forth required material resources and attention to environment and structure as well as individual behavior.

There’s only so far you can nudge before you bump into structure and environment.

17

Salient 11.10.11 at 3:40 pm

* State pension schemes—Social Security, Canada Pension Plan—don’t just nudge, they coerce people into putting money aside for their old age.

Eh, no, it makes more sense to say S.S. coerces people into putting money aside for their generation’s old age. Most people don’t get back from S.S. precisely what they provided (some get less, some get more) so it really doesn’t make sense to characterize it as an individual deferment plan. It’s not a long-term certificate of deposit type thing. This is loosely related to why American lefties go ballistic every time someone tries to convert Social Security to an individual deferment scheme.

* Henry, any argument you make about a technocratic elite applies just as well to the managers of the welfare state unless I am missing something.

The ‘unless’ clause is very kind. My thoughts:

* Welfare provisions like basic income, universal healthcare, disability, Social Security, i.e. that don’t specify specific choices for use, aren’t readily susceptible to nudging. Choosing which subpopulations receive provisions isn’t really coercive unless people have a reasonable choice to choose which subpopulation they’ll belong to. (People can’t just up and decide to not be old, they can’t just up and decide to not be sick, and they can’t just up and decide to not be poor. I guess people could choose to get sick or intentionally become poor solely for the sake of receiving benefits, but that would be pathological.)

* If “public health care treats X but not Y” seems like nudging, keep in mind that people suffering from X or suffering from Y don’t really have the option of trading. Nudging only makes sense as a concept when people can choose to pass back and forth between the subcategories in a non-pathological way.

* You might say ‘encouraging preventative medicine or healthy eating by making it cheap’ is nudging, and I might casually agree, but it’s probably better to interpret this as government attempting to dispense its resources as efficiently as possible: if it’s the responsibility of government to assure that as few people get condition X as possible/feasible, expenditures designed to reduce incidence of condition X can take any variety of forms — the relevant measure is effectiveness in reducing incidence.

* Welfare provisions like public health care and WIC, that do specify precisely where and when and how the appropriated money is to be used, are functionally no different from any spending the government engages in to fulfill its responsibilities to the population. You could rephrase anything of the form “the government is providing me with access to X” as “the government is coercing me into spending some of its provisions on X” but then it’s no longer an argument specifically about the welfare state. Another item that might fall under this category is refusing to treat people with health condition X until they provably adopt behavior Y.

* The latter category is susceptible to technocratic abuse–witness the school lunch program in the U.S. for example, and I’m sure you have other examples–so it’s completely reasonable to demand that its mechanisms and its management and decision-making processes be transparent, accessible, and accountable to the population.

18

SamChevre 11.10.11 at 3:53 pm

May I note vigorously that democratic arrangements, which foster diversity seems rather to assume its conclusion.

What I note is that things provided by national democracies seem to have rather less diversity than things provided by local decision-making structures (democratic or not).

19

John Quiggin 11.10.11 at 3:54 pm

It’s also worth thinking about self-paternalism. Given that there has to be a default option, I’d prefer that it should be one that is good for me, rather than one chosen on some historical/legalist basis. But I still find the Sunstein/Thaler approach unsatisfactory for some of the reasons in the post and the comments

20

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.10.11 at 3:56 pm

Eh, no, it makes more sense to say S.S. coerces people into putting money aside for their generation’s old age.

Actually, it would make even more sense to say that S.S. coerces younger people into paying to old people, to their parents and grandparents. True, there is the trust fund, because they have overpaid, but that’s a side effect.

21

geo 11.10.11 at 4:50 pm

chris @11: Is it in my real interest to enjoy a tasty cheeseburger?

If Ralph Nader had gotten any help from Jimmy Carter or Tip O’Neill, in the form of a nudge to a Congress under intense pressure from big business, we would have had a Consumer Protection Agency in the late 1970s (possibly even headed by Nader). If we’d had a Consumer Protection Agency for the last three and a half decades, we would have had a far more robust consumer movement. If we had had a more robust consumer movement, we would have had more books and documentaries like Modern Meat, and they would have had wider distribution. And no one who has seen or read anything like Modern Meat could “enjoy a tasty cheeseburger.” I suspect I would actually gag if forced to eat one today.

The above fantasy is not intended to spoil the enjoyment of cheeseburgers (though I can’t bring myself to apologize to anyone on whom it has that effect), but rather to illustrate the fatefulness of nudges (or, in this case, the absence of nudges) and to further discussion of Chris’s useful and searching questions.

22

MPAVictoria 11.10.11 at 5:02 pm

“And no one who has seen or read anything like Modern Meat could “enjoy a tasty cheeseburger.” I suspect I would actually gag if forced to eat one today.”

I think you are vastly overestimating the effect of a book on people’s food preferences.

23

William Timberman 11.10.11 at 5:13 pm

I like a good hamburger now and again. Nostalgia for my vanished teenage years, probably. For younger generations unfamiliar with the nostalgia I’m talking about, a quick glance at American Graffiti will give you some idea.

Nowadays, when I want one, I select and grind my own meat as the first step. This is undoubtedly an affectation, as it doesn’t address all the evils of hamburger consumption. Still, it does mean that I’ve been keeping up with the literature. I also smoke a pipe, which I’ve done for more than fifty years, but I wouldn’t think of defending as a categorical imperative.

We are what our experiences make us. Sufficient unto the day is the evil thereof.

24

Sebastian 11.10.11 at 5:14 pm

The problem of lack of feedback for the nudges is one I hadn’t thought of before, but it seems like a very big problem once I do think about it. The reason I’m not a fan of nudges is related, I suppose. I hate their lack of transparency. I am ultimately ok with a wide range of political choices that I wouldn’t vote for myself, but I get annoyed when I suspect that the preferences I don’t like won largely because their boosters have obscured the choice from people who might agree with me. Now I tend toward the conservative side of things (though at this point hate hate hate the Republican party) so your preferences might not be mine. But isn’t the criticism of the bad process the same? (You hate that Republicans are so adept at obscuring people’s economic interests with culture war distractions).

25

temp 11.10.11 at 5:20 pm

There is very strong evidence that raising cigarette taxes lowers rates of teen smoking, providing large health benefits later in life. Do you think cig taxes should be repealed so that teens can make the decision whether or not to start smoking themselves?

26

bianca steele 11.10.11 at 5:37 pm

I would like to see more along the lines of Chris’s hamburger argument too.

27

Turner 11.10.11 at 6:33 pm

Unfortunately for the right, Thaler and Sunstein did a pretty good job of exposing how deeply flawed libertarianism is – it is, in fact, an ideology built on homo economicus rather than human beings. T & S didn’t realise this when they wrote their book, which is a mark of the hole libertarians have dug themselves into.

‘presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves’

This man has not read or understood the book. It is not about ‘governments versus markets’ neoclassical bizarre-o world; it’s simply that people are affected by social norms, framing, advertising and so forth. Their decisions are always influenced, whether it is by governments, corporations, other people. Why do libertarians not have a problem with corporations influencing which decisions people make?

Sure, there might be some problems deciding whether it’s better to ‘nudge’ people into eating an apple or an orange, but then, policy is tricky. Not every issue can be condensed into a glib, one sentence reductio ad absurdum.

28

Jon 11.10.11 at 7:43 pm

Henry,
It seems to me that the example at the heart of the piece is problematic. You say that that because T&S don’t have the benefit of democratic feedback, they make the unwarranted assumption that opt-in defaults actually increase organ donations (that is, that the plan fails on T&S’s own terms). But the opt-in default is just a means to an end. Wouldn’t it be more consistent with the thesis of your article for you to claim that because T&S don’t have the benefit of democratic feedback, they make the unwarranted assumption that encouraging organ donation is a Good Thing? And are you willing to stand by that challenge?

29

Hermenauta 11.10.11 at 7:49 pm

Henry,

First: I can´t see the difference. It seems to me that top-down regulators also presume “to understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves”. Also, both rulemaking procedures can be subjected to public consultation.

Second: regulators ever can try to detect their own errors, to correct them, and learn from them. International best-practice setters like OECD even suggest that stocktaking of regulation should be embedded in the regulatory process.

Third: even democratically elected representants of the people could choose to issue “nudge”-style regulation, I think.

Sorry if someone already brought these points to the discussion.

30

Watson Ladd 11.10.11 at 8:05 pm

Salient,

Good points, all worthy of your username. However, the welfare state doesn’t just redistribute in line with luck. We might be more willing to pay for some things then others even if people want the other ones more. Piven and Fox were reporting on the humiliation inflicted upon welfare recipients by a hostile, bloated bureaucracy when they wrote their paper. The formation of that bureaucracy was the result of welfare state technocrats pursuing their own ends. Not maliciously, but when they had to pick between spending on their own salaries and bossing people around and doing the job, they picked one.

Public comments as Hermaneuta mentioned are a grab bag. I’ve commented on FCC regulations, and those are readable things. But they are esoteric, even as they affect lots of people’s lives. I’m not qualified to comment on the details of nuclear regulation, even though I know more then most people about how a reactor works. Sadly, we have to trust the regulators to some extent.

31

Hermenauta 11.10.11 at 9:06 pm

Watson,

Sure, but it is a very diferent problem: the resources assimetry between the public in general and special interest groups actually can make the public consultation process less efective. This is somewhat inavoidable and is at the heart of the idea of representative democracy. On the other hand the civil society can sometimes self-organize to confront this problem: in the very field of telecommunications, some bodies like EFF and Public Knowledge in the USA are instrumental in making a counterpoint to the lobbies of corporations. Sadly it´s not true in every country because this demands some capital, including human and social capital.

32

bdbd 11.10.11 at 9:18 pm

I’ve never thought that “policy” was the plural of “nudge.”

33

Kenny Easwaran 11.10.11 at 11:31 pm

I’m worried about how much work the “diversity trumps ability” theorem and the like are doing. Isn’t there a serious problem in trying to read off policy prescriptions from formalized results that hold in artificial settings like this? It seems to me that unless the notions of “diversity” and “ability” are appropriately operationalized in the statements of these theorems, there’s a serious worry that you’ll get something no better than the equilibrium models of neo-classical economics in terms of what it tells us to do as a real society in the real world – that is, it’s probably right for large classes of circumstances, but also drastically wrong for some. Certain types of diversity are clearly useful for solving certain types of problems, but other types of diversity are far worse than ability at solving other types of problems. There’s a reason that most machines aren’t designed democratically, but rather by engineers (admittedly, with some amount of public input in some cases).

34

Peter T 11.10.11 at 11:34 pm

As someone who has been on both sides of a social security office desk, can I say I find Watson’s example at 30 unconvincing. Social security bureaucracies can be hostile and demeaning, but this is usually because those setting the policy (and their electoral backers) want them this way. A lot of people think social provision should be hard to get, and received with appropriate deference and thankfulness for the existing social order. But this is harder for those on the delivery side – it’s easier to make it helpful, polite, painless. You get shouted at less, the process is more efficient, and it actually costs less to administer.

Of course, if you tell people to make it hard, and then it becomes unpleasant, they become defensive, hostile etc. And the process will shed people who want to help, and recruit people who want to be nasty. But the origin is not bureaucratic self-interest; quite the reverse. Public choice theory often blames bureaucrats for the sins of the governing classes (probably because it’s often a cover for those same classes).

35

chris 11.11.11 at 12:09 am

May I note vigorously that “democratic arrangements, which foster diversity” seems rather to assume its conclusion.

You could say that about almost everything the original piece has to say about democracy. Any discussion of the flaws in “democratic feedback” is notably absent; the people just plain know what they really want (or need — the possibility of a difference between these two things is not examined, even though it’s the whole reason for libertarian paternalism to exist in the first place) and they’ll tell you if you let them.

Democracy may still be the worst system except for all the others, but it would be nice to see at least a little attempt to defend that viewpoint, rather than just assuming away all its known flaws.

Mettler uses experiments to show how ordinary people can understand complicated policy questions and reach considered conclusions, as long as they get enough information.

Well, that solves everything! All you need to do is make sure that people with limited free time and little inclination to sort out information from misinformation nevertheless get enough (I presume accurate) information so that they can make complex policy decisions. Easy.

If they had that kind of information, they’d *be* the experts. The impracticality of training everyone to fully understand every area of policy is why policy experts were invented (and experts on every other subject, too).

If someone doesn’t actually have the information to make an informed decision, it doesn’t matter that they’re theoretically capable of understanding the subject if they did have that information — they’ll vote based on the mix of information and misinformation they have, not the full and accurate information you wish they had. Scale this up to a whole electorate and all of a sudden you need undemocratic impositions just to un-ban interracial marriage.

I can’t believe that the authors of this piece literally didn’t know anything about the history of democracies and their various blunders and crimes against their own people and others, so why did they write as if the vox pop was infallible?

groups of agents with diverse understandings of the world will solve difficult problems better than narrowly focused groups with higher expertise.

Maybe, but they’ll also solve them worse. How do you make sure that in a democratic system, the worse solution isn’t implemented in place of the better one? Democracies come to perversely stupid decisions all the time, even when better information is available.

Impose a rational process for selecting the most effective solution instead of the one the greatest number of people feel best about? That’s not very democratic. Indeed, if you did that, you’d be a lot like a technocrat.

I’m also a bit suspicious of characterizing this result as a “theorem”. If it’s a theorem, rather than an experimental finding, what are its premises? Are they approximately as realistic as EMH?

By all means consult experts, but the dialogue should go both ways.

Is this just a blatant strawman? Who suggests that the dialogue shouldn’t go both ways as a matter of course?

When the non-expert side of the dialogue is saying they didn’t come from no monkey, or that we need more tax cuts to reduce the deficit, or that the government should get its hands off government-run programs, you’re probably justified in ignoring what they have to say, but otherwise I don’t think “libertarian paternalists” suggest not listening to feedback. (I can’t speak for them, though. I’m just a little more wary of democracy than the original authors seem to be.)

36

mclaren 11.11.11 at 5:15 am

First, there’s a difference twixt “nudging” as the article seems to describe it and simple “opt-in” or “opt-out” provisions. I take it that a “nudge” requires that someone actually make a choice. But a default “opt-in” for organ donation requires no action on anyone’s part. That seems like a significant difference from a policy designed to “nudge” people.

A better example of “nudge” policies, to my mind, involves the ACA mandate which fines people if they don’t buy unaffordable private health insurance guaranteed to increase limitlessly in cost over time. This is a true nudge, and it fails because it gets almost everything about human nature wrong. Nudge policies typically assume that people are stupid and do self-desctructive things because they’re dumb or pathological, but in this case, the people who don’t buy unaffordable health insurance aren’t stupid or willfully self-destructive — they just don’t have enough money to pay for unaffordable private health insurance. These kinds of nudge policies also assume that people are so dimwitted they won’t adapt to social change, and that people lack foresight so completely that they can’t take a look at a social or economic trend and draw the obvious conclusions and then plan their actions on the basis of that obvious conclusion.

Any sensible person who looks at America’s broken health care system will project into the future and realize that if you pay for private health insurance your insurance company will refuse to pay for care when you need it, and any sensible person also realizes that with no cost controls on America’s corrupt cartel-ridden fragmented health care system where doctors routinely take bribes and medical devicemakers routinely bribe hospitals to use their equipment, that health costs are guaranteed to rise without limit for the foreseeable future. A sensible person therefore sees no point in paying what is in effect a limitless increasing insurance premium for a service that will never be delivered if it is needed. So a sensible person will logically choose to pay the ACA fine instead of getting unaffordable private health insurance, unless that insurance is already offered with their job.

The other point that the article misses is that technocrats horribly misunderstand or misrepresent human nature. People think 8 chess moves ahead and consequently the first results of any “nudge” policy will be to stimulate people to game the system in counterproductive ways. An excellent example of this was the crazy policies in England designed to make hospital administrators into “health care entrepeneurs” who would supposedly find new and inventive ways to improve health care because of quotas mandated by the government for health care goals.

Instead, what actually happened as a result of these “nudge” policies in Britain was that hospital adminsitrators gamed the system. When the government mandated that every patient must be seen by a health care professional within half an hour of showing up at a hospital, the hospitals simply designated orderlies “health care professionals” and had the orderly talk to the patient for 5 minutes. When the government mandated that patients in need of critical care had to be admitted to a hospital room, the hospital administrators designed the hospital corridors “hospital rooms” and parked the critical care patients there.

And so on.

Anyone with common sense and an experience with human nature could predict this kind of game-the-system behavior from “nudge” policies, but the technocrats don’t seem to understand human nature or have any idea of how real people in the real world actually behave. So they’re continually shocked and nonplussed by the real-world crazy responses to their nudge policies.

37

mclaren 11.11.11 at 5:37 am

Incidentally, Neil’s comment perfectly illustrates the misperception that technocrats seem to have about human nature. There’s no evidence that “weakness of will” is responsible for most people’s self-destructive or socially debilitating behavior.

This is the kind of debunked 19th century moralizing that leads people to punish fat people because they lack “willpower” and to hurl junkies into prison because of their alleged “weakness of will.” The available scientific evidence suggests that chronically obese people have different metabolisms than the rest of us (I am not chroncially obese, by the way, so this is not a self-apology — I’m 6 foot 1 and weigh 200 pounds), and the avaliable scientific evidence also suggests that circa 6% of the population have a difference in their brain chemistry that leads them to take narcotic drugs.

Many people assume that weight is mostly a matter of willpower — that we can learn both to exercise and to avoid muffins and Gatorade. A few of us can, but evolution did not build us to do this for very long. In 2000 the journal Psychological Bulletin published a paper by psychologists Mark Muraven and Roy Baumeister in which they observed that self-control is like a muscle: it weakens each day after you use it. If you force yourself to jog for an hour, your self-regulatory capacity is proportionately enfeebled. Rather than lunching on a salad, you’ll be more likely to opt for pizza.

Some of us can will ourselves to overcome our basic psychology, but most of us won’t be very successful. “The most powerful determinant of your dietary intake is your energy expenditure,” says Steven Gortmaker, who heads Harvard’s Prevention Research Center on Nutrition and Physical Activity. “If you’re more physically active, you’re going to get hungry and eat more.”

Source: TIME magazine, 9 August 2009, “Why exercising won’t make you thin.”

Source: Addiction and the Brain’s Pleasure Pathway: Beyond Willpower, by Nora D. Volkow, M.D.

Anyone who talks about mythical ‘weakness of will’ as the cause of most social pathologies can’t be taken seriously in these days of PET scans and cognitive neuroscience. This is a 19th century fairy tale and leads to the kind of long-debunked social darwinism that led Victorians to build debtor’s prisons in order to punish poor people for their supposed “lack of strength of character” that had purportedly led to their failure to make money.

38

scritic 11.11.11 at 2:16 pm

Hi Henry! I too find the article a little perplexing. I think it’s important to point out that a lot of “nudgelogy” is actually subversive of democracy. The one criticism you make of an actual “nudge” policy – organ donations – doesn’t suggest to me that the “opt-out” nudge policy that Thaler-Sunstein suggest is doing any harm, although it may not be as effective as they claim it is. And after all, even “unsexy but crucial reforms to regional schemes” are still “nudges,” no? Although it’s true that they would have to be democratically arrived at after some debate.

The rest is a little too abstract, although I like the idea of a two-way communication system that leads to some kind of feedback (although that goes even for decisions that are made democratically). For example, Scott Page’s work, that diversity works better, is almost entirely a matter of abstract mathematics and simulation trials. I like it but in what sense is it “evidence” against certain forms of expertise?

I think your criticism of the nudge model is similar to what wrote about in the NY Times a while ago. That a lot of behavioral economics is being used when we aren’t able to pass the kind of regulation we like (because of the power of big business, and some sort of regulatory capture) and so we have to resort to these (presumably undemocratic) tricks like nudges. But it’s not clear to me that the kind of regulation that’s passed by bodies like the EPA or SEC is any more “democratic” than nudges, meaning that it is still expertise-driven and crafted by bureaucrats.

39

Bloix 11.11.11 at 6:37 pm

BTW, I don’t understand at all the dichotomy between nudging and democracy. I can understand the argument that nudging is anti-libertarian, because true liberty demands that individuals must be free to make their own choices with no guidance from government, even if it kills them. But how is nudging less democratic than straight-out coercive regulation (e.g. it’s against the law to hire a willing worker for less than minium wage)? And if it’s not, then you’re arguing that all representative forms of government are evil and the only legitimate government is the Athenian polis. Is that the argument? Do we really need to spend time on it?

40

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.11.11 at 7:24 pm

Because the straight-out coercive regulation is discussed and enacted (or rejected) openly, while the nudge thing is something like a straussian ‘noble lie’.

41

Salient 11.11.11 at 7:27 pm

Is that the argument?

Attempts to modify people’s behavior so that in the aggregate they conform to a pattern that is structurally beneficial, regardless of how individuals or subpopulations are affected or feel affected, should not be undertaken untransparently by organizational bodies not democratically accountable to the populations whose behavior they are attempting to modify. One good empirical argument for this is that technocrats, like the financiers who tanked the economy, are fairly bad at doing what they purport to be doing. “Thaler and Sunstein’s ideas presume good technocrats can use statistical and experimental results to guide people to make choices that serve their real interests. … the technocrats [have] no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them.”

[A second good empirical argument is that technocrats are bad at attempting to do what they purport to be doing, but that kind of dishonest hackery isn’t directly addressed in the paper. Good will is presumed.]

A third good empirical argument is that populations who receive accurate descriptive information are actually quite good at contributing to the decision-making process themselves.

And, offering an opt-out option as a means for softening the policy’s deleterious individual effects doesn’t excuse this kind of nontransparent manipulation, because the distribution of knowledge that opting out is possible inevitably won’t overlap with the distribution of people that would emphatically want to not opt in (from a technocratic perspective you can’t safely offer an opt-out information if you genuinely believe all the people who want to opt out will know how to and will–it screws up the aggregate, because that population is nontrivial).

If you’re offering an opt-out, and your system only works in the aggregate if not very many people opt out, something is desperately wrong. If so few people would opt out that it doesn’t affect the aggregate, then your nudge is pointless, if so many people would opt out that it affects the aggregate, then your nudge depends upon maintaining the general population’s ignorance that opt out is possible. In the latter case, why bother to offer an opt-out? Because it neuters some criticisms that opponents of the policy could make. That makes it a fundamentally dishonest practice.

That’s (in effect) the argument. Of course, in trying to make it more explicit and emphatic, I’ve overextended it (it is not literally true that opt-out policies are “fundamentally dishonest practice” e.g. a Whopper sandwich as not ‘fundamentally dishonest’ because you can opt out of onions and tomatoes). But the argument and especially its milder version from the NS paper doesn’t reduce us to Athenian polis, I don’t think.

42

temp 11.11.11 at 8:43 pm

Attempts to modify people’s behavior so that in the aggregate they conform to a pattern that is structurally beneficial, regardless of how individuals or subpopulations are affected or feel affected, should not be undertaken untransparently by organizational bodies not democratically accountable to the populations whose behavior they are attempting to modify.

Does this argument imply that we should eliminate the technocrats at the FDA and give power to approve drugs and regulate the food supply back to congress (or perhaps get drugs approved by referenda)?

43

Bloix 11.11.11 at 10:58 pm

#41 – “Attempts to modify people’s behavior so that in the aggregate they conform to a pattern that is structurally beneficial, regardless of how individuals or subpopulations are affected or feel affected, should not be undertaken untransparently by organizational bodies not democratically accountable to the populations whose behavior they are attempting to modify.”

Well, temp (#42) got there first, but this really is an argument that all government other than the town meeting is illegitimate. All government regulation is about modifying behavior. Seriously, I can’t believe we’re spending time on this. If your argument is that technocrats (the left-wing name for bureaucrats) are petty dictators who can’t be trusted, you’re a Ron Paul libertarian.

“If so few people would opt out that it doesn’t affect the aggregate, then your nudge is pointless, if so many people would opt out that it affects the aggregate, then your nudge depends upon maintaining the general population’s ignorance that opt out is possible.”

This is just wrong. The nudge doesn’t depend on maintaining the general population’s ignorance. It depends on the fact that most people don’t have a view about a lot of things. They don’t want to make a choice, and they certainly don’t want to spend their free time learning enough dry technical details in order to make an educated choice. So if you make the socially beneficial thing he default, they’ll do it. Not because they’ve been kept in ignorant darkness by evil technocrats, but because really, they don’t much care. But if you make them have to choose the socially beneficial thing, they won’t do it. Not because they’re anti-social, but because in addition to all the other crap of daily life, now there’s about a thousand insanely boring public policy thingies they’re told to learn about in order to make a bunch of informed decisions that they don’t really care about. They just won’t do it.

Really, if society was (1) made of people all as smart as Henry who (2) had unlimited amounts of time to do nothing but cogitate about public policy and (3) got the same kind of pleasure out of thinking about this stuff that Henry gets instead of (4) having strong negative emotional reactions to well-intentioned bossy people trying to teach them stuff they’re not interested in – well, even then, the negative analysis of nudging wouldn’t be correct. But it might be interesting. Which, at present, it isn’t.

44

chris 11.11.11 at 11:48 pm

A third good empirical argument is that populations who receive accurate descriptive information are actually quite good at contributing to the decision-making process themselves.

I don’t see how this can possibly be an *empirical* argument when no such populations exist. Maybe you mean “members of the population who receive accurate information…” in which case that’s lovely and all, but it will be scaled up to whole populations the week after pigs fly, so its policy implications are nil.

If a given person had adequate accurate information on a particular subject they would *be* one of the experts. That’s practically the definition of expertise. The fact that it isn’t widespread is the whole problem; you can’t just assume it away.

If so few people would opt out that it doesn’t affect the aggregate, then your nudge is pointless, if so many people would opt out that it affects the aggregate, then your nudge depends upon maintaining the general population’s ignorance that opt out is possible.

No, no, no. You’re ignoring the whole point of the nudge: that some people’s answer *depends on how you ask the question*. Actually quite a lot of people. Are those “people who want to opt out”? Clearly no, since they don’t opt out in an opt-out system. Yet, if you set up an opt-in system, they wouldn’t opt in. Nudging them is not at all pointless.

Also, what Bloix said.

45

Henry 11.12.11 at 12:04 am

On my way back from a demanding workshop, hence delay in replying. Lots of comments, so these clarifications will likely not satisfy everyone – and feel free to let me know if not (weekends are Not Good Times for me to spend time on the internets, esp. weekends after I have left my spouse on her own with small children for a couple of days, so I may not be able to respond until Monday, but will then). Also, Cosma (who was at the same workshop) may have comments too.

The basic intuition behind what Cosma and I wrote is something like the following. “Nudge” is, as Thaler and Sunstein argue, a form of libertarian paternalism. The libertarian bit comes from the notion that you are providing people with choice. If they really don’t want to be nudged, they can take other decisions. The paternalism part comes from being paternalist – from thinking that you (for a very broad section of you) can’t be trusted to know your own interests, and, to the extent that you do know your interests, can’t be trusted to behave according to them.

Most of the criticism that Thaler/Sunstein have gotten is from libertarians, who are saying that this is not actually libertarian. This is (as Cosma observed to me at the meeting) obviously a dominant interpretation, in that even the headline writer for our piece seems to subsume our argument beneath it (happily, the commenters at CT seem to have read more closely). We are making a different argument – which is that paternalism, whether libertarian or not, is not a very good idea. You could make this argument on normative grounds (one of the interesting papers at the workshop we were at was given by Tommie Shelby, who argued that paternalist efforts to change the ‘culture of poverty’ were incompatible with self-respect), but this isn’t what we do. We make it on pragmatic grounds, which are the grounds that Thaler and Sunstein are working from, arguing that paternalism is going to do worse, _ceteris paribus_ than democratic forms of input in identifying actors’ real needs. If one starts from the perspective that paternalism is a good idea, then one doesn’t have much reason to think that people may often have a better idea of what those interests are than you do, and that there may be excellent reasons to consult them and involve them. This is a problem with the Thaler/Sunstein book, which provides very little room for any form of feedback. So in short – the problem is with the paternalism. But it is clearly also with clarity of writing, in that this piece seems to have puzzling to a number of very smart people.

Some other points. The organ donation case may not have been the best example – it was simply intended to show that the causal beliefs underlying proposals for nudge politics may be wrong. The diversity trumps ability result seems to have a lot of purchase – Michael Nielsen’s new book is really really good on this in the realm of science. The people who claim that democracy has flaws and makes mistakes are correct – but they seem to assume that other systems of decision making are unflawed or less flawed, and less likely systematically to make mistakes (I’ll be placing my bets on democracy rather than Singaporean benevolent dictatorship, thanks). That said, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to argue that there are sectors of society that we will not want to organize along democratic principles – but the decision over which sectors should or should not be so organized should be made democratically (this is the basic argument of Knight and Johnson’s new book on pragmatist democratic theory). Given our theoretical priors, we have _no problem whatsoever_ with self-binding via choice constraint – this does not invoke the same problems of knowledge (or normative problems) as a situation where you are nudged by someone else.

And also, I should say that this piece is in part a throat-clearing for a longer piece and project that Cosma and I will be writing (we should have a preliminary version of our positive argument for diversity and democracy to share around by May or June of next year).

46

temp 11.12.11 at 1:22 am

That said, I think that it is perfectly reasonable to argue that there are sectors of society that we will not want to organize along democratic principles – but the decision over which sectors should or should not be so organized should be made democratically.

How is that different from any democracy today? In the US, The bureaucracy is empowered by laws passed by elected members of congress. It is headed by the president and his appointees, who are approved by elected members of congress. If any person or group objects to a decision made by a technocrat, or to powers given to bureaucracy in general, they can use typical means of democratic protest (e.g., speaking, organizing, voting) to oppose this decision. If you object to the power of the fed, for example, you can vote for Ron Paul. If you object to the power of the EPA you can vote for any given Republican.

47

bianca steele 11.12.11 at 1:47 am

The libertarian bit comes from the notion that you are providing people with choice. If they really don’t want to be nudged, they can take other decisions.

Maybe I’m wrong, but I’ve assumed “choice” goes beyond checkoffs. When you install Microsoft Windows, you get a “nudge” toward Internet Explorer. You can install a different browser, but that requires some technical knowledge, as well as trust that installing non-Microsoft apps is kosher. It also requires more work, unlike a checkoff. So nudging could cause some people to choose between what they think they want or need and what they have the time and information to take advantage of–different people than the people who’d have to choose if not for the nudge. There’s still “choice” but it’s kind of a bait-and-switch, like asking people to give themselves their own injections, and arguing it’s for their own good because it will encourage them to take responsibility for their own medical care.

48

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.12.11 at 5:24 am

Yes, government often is about modifying behavior. But it’s also about informed consent, as opposed to behind the scenes manipulations by supposedly smart and well-meaning individuals.

49

Bloix 11.12.11 at 3:52 pm

Nudges are not “behind the scenes.” They are up front.

There’s a complete logical disconnect here – on the one hand, the electorate is able and willing to make informed and reasonable decisions on virtually every subject, no matter how complex or technical, and at the same time, the individuals that make up the electorate are so stupid, lazy, and passive that they can be manipulated simply by the phrasing of a question.

Note btw that the anti-nudgers contend that an informed people can make good decisions without being nudged. Who is going to do the informing. Presumably not the “supposedly smart and well-meaning individuals” (ie evil pointy-headed gummit bureaucrats and Harvard professors). Well then, who? Glenn Beck and Sean Hannity, I suppose.

And #47 – yes, indeed, corporate marketers are very familiar with nudging and do it all the time. Apparently nudging in the interests of profit-maximization is ok but nudging to improve the public health is tyranny. We really are in Ron Paul territory.

50

Henri Vieuxtemps 11.12.11 at 4:13 pm

Bloix, you’re only saying this because you happen to agree with these particular nudgers. Hence “good decisions”. But some other time it’ll be a group of nudgers you disagree with, their idea of “good decisions” being, for example, preventing abortions, divorces, swearing, long hair, insubordination, fornication, not wearing a tie, or whatever else those other well meaning people might find harmful to your wellbeing.

They won’t have votes to ban these things, but they will, somehow, make them difficult, just to help you make the right choice. It doesn’t really matter whether you are smart or stupid, a political activist or totally apolitical, they’ll get you just the same. And you will hate them, and for a good reason.

51

Harold 11.12.11 at 4:24 pm

Informed opinion might get in the way of advertising and dogma.

52

William Timberman 11.12.11 at 4:28 pm

Well, let’s see…maybe I would put it like this:

People being what they are — statistically, anyway, I don’t want to argue about free will here — a bit of social engineering can be a good thing. It can’t ever be a good thing in the long run, however, if the door isn’t left open for a majority to re-jigger the machinery if and when they discover that it’s been set up by by engineers who’ve mistaken administrative convenience for the public good. Provision must also be made for the Inalienable Rights of minorities, a corollary of which is that we must remember what they are. (The right to own slaves, for example, isn’t one of them, John C. Calhoun and Trent Lott to the contrary notwithstanding.)

The problem with representative democracy from the beginning has been the ease with which wealth and power can turn it into commedia dell’arte, and then oblige us on pain of penury or worse not to notice the transformation. Much confusion has resulted from this inversion of our political vocabulary, even here at CT.

53

Tim Wilkinson 11.12.11 at 8:53 pm

There seem to be two kind of nudge being discussed – one is the familiar ‘incentives’ stuff like taxing cigarettes and booze. The novel kind seems as far as a cursory glance can tell to be based on this model of the organ donor. This is presented on the basis that no incentives or disincentives are being loaded onto the options, and – presumably if questioned T&S would say the idea is not to slip something through in the fine print (though why in that case an opt-out rather than a mandatory decision, with no default supplied, as part of various registrations etc?).

But we’re dealing with Cass Sunstein here, the guy who is at the same time crude and authoritarian enough to publicly call for the US govt to infiltrate ‘conspiracy’ websites, and naive enough to think this was not already happening. The thing about these nudges is indeed that they are supposed in some way to be furtive. And that means they are not designed to prompt fully informed and deliberate decisions, but to do something else – and I suggest it’s pretty clear that the ‘something else’ is to bypass the requirement to gain consent. There’s no further option.

Either there is

1. A situation in which changing the default option is enough genuinely to elicit real consent from people who would otherwise have withheld it out of inertia or something, despite being indifferent between the two options. This is not likely to be a frequently occurring kind of situation (terrific triviality?) and we are really looking at questionnaire and form design, the aim being to get attention and encourage people to express their preferences.
or
2. A situation in which people are being got to do things they would not have chosen to on the basis of being given their options clearly, with reasons. In this case, we have something dodgy going on.

Bloix actually makes a reasonable point, though backwards – that corporate power is full of this stuff – small print, inaccessible T&Cs, “Please exclude me from your exclusive offers and info mailing list” checkboxes, etc etc. I of course am very very angry about that just like everything else, so not impressed with it as apology for Sunstein.

Also – note the organ donor stuff is not paternalistic – the ‘obviously for your own good (but still here’s some prompting – that goes beyond advice yet falls short of incentive-adjustment)’ kind of case is going to be sufficiently rarem, isn’t it, that it too falls into ‘terrific triviality’ territory (unless we are now switching to discussion of akrasia – perfectly plausible given what else I know about him that Sunstein would fail to distinguish that issue).

Also, on the “diversity trumps ability” theorem of Scott E. Page. Annoying enough to merit a full devastating critique, but in the meantime, I’d agree with Kenny Easwaran @33, who is worried about how much work the “diversity trumps ability” theorem and the like are doing. Isn’t there a serious problem in trying to read off policy prescriptions from formalized results that hold in artificial settings like this?

I think the word ‘problem’ here is very well chosen. A serious and insurmountable problem, I’d say. Serious, insurmountable and grotesquely, mirthlessly risible, even.

54

Salient 11.12.11 at 9:45 pm

@ Bloix, @ chris

Nudges are not “behind the scenes.” They are up front.

Then you’re in disagreement (with me at least) about what the definition of what a ‘nudge’ is. Which is ok and all, but this probably means we don’t disagree in substance, only in lexicon.

Apparently nudging in the interests of profit-maximization is ok but nudging to improve the public health is tyranny.

This sentence was fun and all, but c’mon, consider a moment the likelihood that the CT commenter who yammers on most frequently about nationalizing entire sectors of the economy specifically in order to remove perverse profit motives would declare nudging in the interests of profit-maximization to be “ok.”

A policy of the form “X is bad for people, but we can’t prohibit X because people would go ballistic, so we’ll make it more expensive to obtain X or cheaper to obtain alternative-to-X, so the incidence of people obtaining X will decline without anyone aware of why” is a nudge.

Maybe this’ll help — IMO here are some places where our definitions might clash:

* Regulation of industry is not nudging–any act to protect the commons from negative externalities that particular entities might cause is not nudging. On the opposite side, prohibitions or behavioral restrictions directly encoded into law are not nudging, they’re direct coercion (and direct coercion is definitely preferable to nudging).

* Most advertising or explicit advocacy is not nudging–any action which directly interacts with the population isn’t nudging. Associating your product with awesome things or promoting its awesomeness is not nudging (call it yanking, if we need a word for it). Nudging is more subtle and mechanistic.

* Even offering a sale price isn’t nudging (pleading, perhaps). If you felt that people ought to wear less fur, and therefore introduced a value-added tax of 10% on fur products, that’s more of a nudge.

* For a nudge, you’re specifically relying on ‘the magic of the market’ to invisibly guide people’s choices. A ‘sin tax’ on nicotine products might be one example of a nudge, though a ‘nicotine tax’ expended to compensate for nicotine’s impact on public health would not be. A toll or gas tax that aims to collect enough revenue to fund road maintenance is not a nudge, but a toll or gas tax specifically designed to steer people toward alternative routes to work and/or to buy more energy-efficient cars is a nudge. Intention is crucial to the definition.

* An example nudge would be increasing property taxes on residential property by $500 per room and $2500 per story, intending that this will lead to smaller houses in new developments. This relies on the assumption that most individuals won’t be aware of the coercive tax; they’ll just happen to notice some homes are more expensive, and so they’ll happen to prefer smaller houses. If folks are aware of the coercive tax, they would be likely to resent it as ‘meddling’ and demand its repeal. (As a general but fallible rule, if it seems really unfair to describe a particular policy as ‘meddling in the market’ then it’s probably not a nudge.)

* Another example would be bending vehicular regulation and reclassifying a variety of Hummer-size cars as ‘light trucks’ so that they are more readily available to consumers without need for a special license. Voila, suddenly SUVs are super-ubiquitous, with hardly anybody aware that something happened behind the scenes. It’s probably the perfect example of a nudge.

I don’t see how this can possibly be an empirical argument when no such populations exist.

…are you arguing that the specific research examples cited in Henry & Cosma’s article don’t exist? I was just summarizing my interpretation of the article’s assertions, without any particular intention of signing on to them or disputing them. That sentence was summarizing paragraphs 8 through 10. If you feel those three paragraphs made inaccurate claims, your beef is with Henry and Cosma, not with me.

If a given person had adequate accurate information on a particular subject they would be one of the experts. That’s practically the definition of expertise.

Ok, we’re talking past each other at this point. I’d scoff at any attempt to label me an immigration-issues ‘expert’ but I feel like I know enough about the topic to confidently denounce as horrible that horrible law that Arizona enacted. Honestly I feel like I am an expert in absolutely nothing, or possibly exactly one absurdly hyper-specific thing (and am probably not the only grad student to feel this all the more acutely in each stage of the thesis-writing process), but I would feel affronted by accusations that I’m insufficiently informed about stuff to contribute sensibly and productively to democratic decision-making.

So I would say no, that’s a definition of ‘expertise’ which I’d emphatically reject, because I want ‘expert’ to mean something far beyond ‘proficient’ or ‘attentive to the issue’ or even ‘intermittently active in political advocacy relevant to the issue.’

55

Sebastian (2) 11.13.11 at 12:24 am

I think we should be very clear that incentive changing policies such as sin taxes are not nudges. I don’t have the nudge book here, but I think a useful definition of a nudge would be something like
“a change in the choice architecture that leaves the expected pay-off (and thus the expected behavior of a perfectly rational actor) unchanged, but is expected to change the behavior of typical actors in a way that is deemed desirable”.

The whole point (and why they’re calling it libertarian) is that you don’t punish people who make the “wrong” decision – you just make it easier to make the “right” one. Tobacco taxes may be good or bad, but they’re not libertarian – paternalistic or not.

A good example of an undesirable (at least from the perspective of most people here) “nudge” reform is the Argentina pension privatization. Menem instituted a mixed public/private system in the 1990s and people could choose between a public PAYGO system and a private fund system. Crucially, the default was to randomly assign people to one of the private funds. (The Kirchner government actually reversed that default – which dramatically changed new member numbers in favor of the public system. Unfortunately from a polisci perspective, shortly thereafter the government completely nationalized the system killing the opportunity for a very nice publication.)

I’m also confused by the Farrell Shalizi piece, not so much because I’m unsympathetic, but because I don’t understand their critique. Is it that people are wrong about whether “nudges” work? That’s what the organ donation example would work. I’m very sympathetic to this critique, but it only implies that nudges may be useless, not that they may be bad.

The second critique is that nudges may nudge people to the wrong policy goals (e.g. private pension funds, I guess). Here I am a bit more confused and so, I’d argue, is the article. Is the problem that the nudges are made “secretly” and obscured from citizens?
Is it that they’re replacing other policies? Both of these are justified – nudging can’t and shouldn’t replace public policy and it should be upfront about its purpose and existence.
But let’s assume for a moment that these two are given (and I agree that in reality they’re not) – would it really be a bad idea for a government – democratically elected after all – to think about the way it presents its citizens with choices?
To go back to the Argentine example – Menem’s government was quite clear about the fact that they thought people should switch to the private system. Given that that was the transparently stated goal – was it really wrong to set up the system in a way that made it more likely for people to choose the private system (and vice versa – was the Kirchner gov’t, vocally in favor of strengthening the public system, wrong to change that default?).

56

Turner 11.13.11 at 1:47 am

@Bloix

‘Note btw that the anti-nudgers contend that an informed people can make good decisions without being nudged. Who is going to do the informing. Presumably not the “supposedly smart and well-meaning individuals”’

You have not read the book and do not understand Nudge. The entire premise is that people are *always* nudged into making a certain type of decision. The question is not whether or not to nudge them, but how to nudge them in a beneficial way.

57

Tim Wilkinson 11.13.11 at 1:48 am

Just to clarify – I take it that an operative and efficacious ‘nudge':

1. is essentially behaviour modifying: it elicits behaviour which would not otherwise have been exhibited.

2. does not involve deception, misrepresentation, ‘psychological manipulation’ (def.: TBA; e.g.: crude conditioning), physical manipulation, mistake, inadvertence or ignorance: it is autonomy preserving

3. is something over and above argument, information and accurately assaying preferences: it is at least in part non-collaborative.

1., behaviour modification, and 2., autonomy preservation jointly entail that a nudge alters what people choose and that it does so without merely providing support to a deliberative decision. What can you do to change what a person decides, other than assisting or hampering them in reaching their decision? Change the decision they face.

Which is where incentives come in: threats and offers; deterrence and promotion; coercion and inducement. Altering the payoffs. But we already know about incentives. They are nothing new. Nudges, if they are to be interesting per se, must be a distinctive kind of incentive alteration. A nice, unobtrusive, light-touch libertarian kind.

So: could a nudge be a Libertarian incentive alteration? That is to say, one which does not involve any non-contracted alteration of jural relations – rights, obligations, etc. – by the nudger? This would rule out most usual kinds of stick-and-carrot incentives; and would seem to leave only things like the organ donor case.

But even that case, depending on how it’s conceived, could fall foul of the libertarian constraint. A genuine ‘opt out’ system would involve ‘imposing’ the liability to (have one’s remains harvested?), and the substantive burden of opting out.

On the other hand, a system which only frames the issue as an opt-out, by setting the default option in a form, say, would depend on genuine and occurrent, if implicit, opt-in and so could be libertarian in this sense. But the way in which the nudgee’s decision is altered must still be compatible with the libertarian constraint, and is still obscure. The incentive offered (and I suppose thinking now mainly of negative incentives) must, perhaps like a boycott, involve rightful action by the nudger.

But in the context of a Leviathan set up to regulate behaviour by legislating changes to jural relations, it’s hard to see how this can be applied. The libertarian (Libertarian) constraint faces a dilemma – either it takes seriously the idea that the state can carry out ‘rightful actions’ in pursuit of the general good, actions which may impose novel burdens on others, or it concedes that there is no body in a position to start issuing nudges.

We recall of course that the nudge can’t involve anything like fraud that would interfere with autonomy. Perhaps though, true to form, a Libertarian conception of nudges would rely on – without acknowledgement – the kind of sharp practice that keeps the wheels of consumer capitalism grinding. As mentioned, consumer contracts are hemmed in on all sides by ‘nudges’.

Nudges might in economistic terms be those bits which exploit the inferior bargaining capacity (not bargaining power) of the consumer: the high (subjective) cost of wading through reams of small print (or on the web, scrolling through one of those little peephole windows they hide the T&Cs in), or short-con psychological trickery like exploiting various cognitive biases – perhaps a tendency not to alter default options. But of course this is not something we wish to applaud, but rather to drive into the sea.

Nudges are meant to be less heavy-handed than penal provisions or imposition of duties, and I suppose less – obvious? – than tax breaks. So maybe a nudge is a de minimis incentive. E.g. changing the default option on a form places the onus on the citizen to make an opt-out decision – not much to ask, I suppose the idea is supposed to be. I do not really suppose that whatever the facts alleged about peoples’ responses varying according to presentation, they are to be explained by a rational decision to minimise costs which are – we suppose at this point – already de minimis. Far more likely that this kind of nudge relies on the sharp practice suggested above in connection with the vulgar libertarian, or on genuine indifference, either of which disqualifies it from true nudge status, in the former case because it interferes with autonomy, in the latter because the same effect could be achieved by providing information and argument, and a modicum of encouragement.

The other problem with this approach as a basis for public policy is that what counts as de minimis tends to be elastic, and then ‘de minimis’ gets amended to ‘reasonable’, etc.

The only other way of tightening up an understanding of what nudges are about that I can think of is to consider the unobtrusive nature of nudges not as a matter of the light touch, but of sleight of hand. Rather than a little dig in the ribs to remind us to do the right thing, this is a sneakily insouciant nudge that imperceptibly diverts our course. The nudge is not essentially a small or juridically neutral change of incentive. Maybe it is an incentive, according to the official line anyway, but the distinctive thing about it is that you’re not really meant to realise what is happening – that is the common feature so far as I have bothered to make out, and that the abiding factor running through the whole idea.

I mention above Sunstein’s dodgy Hooverite views about conspiracy theories and the need for more sneaky manipulation of websites by state spies. I may have done an injustice by suggesting he’s naïve about the extent of this kind of state activity in the US – I suppose his role is more to normalise it – a bit like Dersh with torture.

So I reckon the problem with nudges is that they are sneaky and probably (therefore) autonomy denying because reliant on exploiting irrationality, ignorance, etc. This is an issue of democracy, but in the first instance one orthogonal to the top-down/bottom-up dimension that I think Henry is talking about.

The whole idea of nudges presupposes that there is sometimes a case for the state to try and alter the behaviour of its citizens. The nudge is first and foremost an undemocratic thing because it is non-transparent – and often in fact reliant on some form ignorance. And neither of these are ways in which a democratic state (its officials) would be able to interact with the citizens who have created it (their posts).

Given non-transparency, Henry’s point about a lack of feedback of the technical-advisory or of the authoritative kind stands, but not, I think, as the ‘key problem':

This points to the key problem with “nudge” style paternalism: presuming that technocrats understand what ordinary people want better than the people themselves. There is no reason to think technocrats know better, especially since Thaler and Sunstein offer no means for ordinary people to comment on, let alone correct, the technocrats’ prescriptions. This leaves the technocrats with no systematic way of detecting their own errors, correcting them, or learning from them. And technocracy is bound to blunder, especially when it is not democratically accountable.

As I’ve suggested before, I don’t think the ‘paternalism’ bit is apt at all, and if the term has been put forward by nudge-proponent it would appear a characteristically devious ploy of copping to the lesser plea. Beiog manipulated for your own good is, one supposes, considered more attractive than being manipulated for a greater good which may or may not be any better – or even worse – for you. In fact, individualistic paternalism (impose costs on A only for greater benefit to A) would have Pareto-improving effects so there’s that whole official-dogma-friendliness aspect, too.

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Bloix 11.13.11 at 4:10 am

Turner @ #56- see Bloix @ #4.

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chris 11.13.11 at 3:27 pm

1. is essentially behaviour modifying: it elicits behaviour which would not otherwise have been exhibited.

This is essentially meaningless because “otherwise” cannot be defined. Any choice is structured and presented to the chooser in *some* way. There is not some privileged neutral way of choosing to which all others must be compared (and judged inferior for their non-neutrality). That’s why it doesn’t make a lot of sense to talk about an alternative to nudging — the alternative to a nudge *is another nudge*, the only question is in what direction.

Or to put it another way, almost any behavior is behavior that would not have been exhibited under *some* set of alternative conditions, the question is what set. The basis of the theory of nudging is the fact that two sets of conditions *neither of which involves coercion* can nonetheless produce different behavior in a significant number of people. So if one of those sets of conditions produces outcomes more conducive to the public good than the other, it ought to be preferred as a matter of policy, rather than… what? Maintaining the status quo whatever it is? Flipping a coin? I’m not entirely clear on what the alternative to nudge awareness is supposed to be, anyway.

2. does not involve deception, misrepresentation, ‘psychological manipulation’ (def.: TBA; e.g.: crude conditioning), physical manipulation, mistake, inadvertence or ignorance: it is autonomy preserving

A system of decisionmaking that never involved inadvertence or ignorance would be a lovely thing, if it could only exist. Nudging (of the paternalistic kind, anyway) is basically about minimizing the damage inflicted by inadvertence or ignorance by trying to predict what people would choose if they were well-informed and took the time to think about it, and then nudging them into choosing that thing even if they *don’t* take the time to think about it (while not explicitly coercing them so the rare people who would actually make a different considered choice can still do so — obviously this opt-out shouldn’t be allowed when it constitutes free riding or worse; people should not merely be nudged into paying taxes or not polluting, for example, they should be required by law to pay them).

On the other hand, non-paternalistic, self-interested nudging is already widespread, influencing the decisions of anyone who doesn’t take the time to think it over or doesn’t have the information to do so to choose in a way that is beneficial *for the nudger*, not necessarily for the nudgee. This is already endemic, in addition to self-serving information (e.g. advertising) and even outright misinformation (I won’t start a flamewar by naming names). So the idea that people would be making their decisions in a vacuum of untrammeled free will if not for those nefarious paternalists is ridiculous (and I hope nobody is actually trying to advance it and I’m merely misunderstanding them).

P.S. It’s been a while since I’ve read the book, but I’m pretty sure that Thaler and Sunstein are clear on the point that, e.g., cigarette taxes are not a nudge. By changing the practical consequences of one of the alternatives, cigarette taxes change the alternatives themselves, not merely the way they are presented to the chooser. Obviously, offering a cash incentive to behave in a certain way can change behavior, and sometimes government should do that, but that sort of thing is outside the realm of nudging, whether you like it or hate it.

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Alex 11.13.11 at 4:08 pm

Surely the problem with nudge is that it’s a case of the fundamental attribution error – it overstates the importance of agency in general. If these people (usually THOSE PEOPLE) didn’t make decision x, they wouldn’t be poor. If we could somehow arrange things so that they wouldn’t choose x, ponies! And we can eliminate the costly apparatus required to cope with choosing x! And give our clientele group a tax cut! After all, if people are so crossgrained they insist on ignoring the nudge and doing it anyway, it’s just their fault and therefore probably evidence that our particular moral or religious intuitions are right.

PONIES! PONIES! AS FAR AS THE EYE CAN SEE! You can see why a certain kind of pol likes it so much and also why the entire project is unacceptable.

Hint: although it is true that traffic islands in the UK are so designed as to make you turn to look in the direction of the approaching cars before stepping into the road, this is basically OK because nobody tried to withdraw the ambulance service as a result.

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Bloix 11.13.11 at 4:39 pm

#60- sarcasm is easy if you don’t what you’re talking about.

Here’s a real-world example. Say an employer offers a 401(k) plan with many, many choices: you can choose a percentage of your income to be withheld. You can choose among a dozen investment vehicles (stocks, bonds, small-cap, mid-cap, growth, income, low-risk, higher-risk, emerging markets, Pacific markets, domestic markets … ). All described in neutrally-presented, government-mandated detail.

The employer doesn’t give you any instruction on what to choose – you’re free to do what you want.

The real-world result of this is that a large percentage of young people choose not to participate. It’s just too confusing and retirement is too far away anyway. They take the papers home to look at, they never do. So they lose the tax benefit of the 401(k), they don’t save, and they miss out on the most important years for preparing for their old age.

In effect, the government rules on the presentation of full, neutrally stated information is a nudged not to participate. Not intentionally, no, but asking people to make a complicated choice that puts a burden on their time and energy is a nudge. Once there’s choice, there’s nudging. There’s no such thing as a neutral way to give people a choice.

If in addition to putting a vast amount of strange and difficult information before the employees , you also put together a few packages: “a choice for people in their 20’s or 30’s with no dependents;” “a choice for people in their 30’s who are starting a family;” “a choice for those nearing retirement age,” etc., then participation rates go way up. More sophisticated people can still put together a plan that they like, but the great majority of employees, who don’t want to learn about this stuff are far more likely to participate.

Under the current rules, the government claims to want to encourage people to save for retirement, but in fact it discourages them from doing so. But apparently, making it easier for people to make a choice that is good for them is a fateful step on the road to serfdom.

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Turner 11.13.11 at 6:20 pm

@ Bloix

I have to confess that I find the disconnect between your comment #49 and your others slightly confusing. On the one hand you seem to be arguing that nudges are unavoidable but you then adopt the standard line against them about bureaucrats not being able to decide things for people.

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Sebastian (2) 11.13.11 at 10:59 pm

@Turner 61 – I think you’re completely misreading Bloix @49.
Nowhere does s/he “adopt the standard line against them about bureaucrats not being able to decide things for people.” In 49 he suggests that there is a contradiction in the anti-nudging position because it has to rely on bureaucrats/experts to present unbiased information. (I don’t think that part of his argument is particularly strong, but it’s a pro-nudging argument).

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Cranky Observer 11.13.11 at 11:47 pm

> Bloix @4:39
> If in addition to putting a vast amount of strange and difficult information
> before the employees , you also put together a few packages: “a choice for
> people in their 20’s or 30’s with no dependents;” “a choice for people in
> ‘their 30’s who are starting a family;” “a choice for those nearing retirement
> age,” etc., then participation rates go way up. More sophisticated people can
> still put together a plan that they like, but the great majority of employees,
> who don’t want to learn about this stuff are far more likely to participate.

Excellent example of both the positive and negative of nudges: in real life, those “packages” carry fees 2-3x higher than the fees on indexed mutual fund choices. So while the omniscient technocrat is “nudging” the 20somethings into participating in their 401(k) -which we assume to be a good thing in this scenario – he is also nudging quite a bit of rakeoff money to a specific set of packaged fund providers. And when you read some of Sunstein’s backstory that is not a coincidence.

Cranky

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Turner 11.14.11 at 2:09 pm

Ah, it appears I have reading comprehension problems. My apologies.

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chrismealy 11.15.11 at 5:29 am

when you read some of Sunstein’s backstory that is not a coincidence

What’s the deal with this? I couldn’t find anything on it.

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rootlesscosmo 11.15.11 at 4:11 pm

Salient: If so few people would opt out that it doesn’t affect the aggregate, then your nudge is pointless

There are scalable nudges, like tobacco taxes, but there are also what might be called exhaustive nudges: supposing we’ve created an organ donation program as a matter of public policy, and we don’t want participation to be mandatory, doesn’t it have to be either opt-in or opt-out? That is, aren’t we faced, in at least some policy areas, with a situation where the only structural possibilities are either nudging or outright coercion? We can have volunteer military services (but then “nudge” potential volunteers by offering scholarships, low-interest home loans, or other scalable incentives) or we can have conscription. Is there a third possibility that’s neither nudging nor coercive? I can’t see one.

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Salient 11.15.11 at 4:45 pm

rootlesscosmo, I may have to abandon my earlier comments and agree with you–Bloix and others convinced me that my operational definition of nudge differs significantly from the standard, which means I’d have to go back and revise all the stuff I’ve said in order for me to make sense.

Suppose you introduce a new opt-in program, you clearly clarify to the public who is eligible to opt in, you explain what the options entail, and you clarify any consequences of opting in that might not be readily inferred. I would not have called that a nudge, under my considerably more restrictive personal definition of nudge. Roughly speaking, to me, nudge = aligning incentives behind the scenes in ways that you believe will guide people into making choices you allege will be better for them or for society as a whole, realigning in a way sufficiently subtle and opaque to ensure the change in policy will not be widely noticed among the general population whose choices are being guided. Bleh, wordy. An opt-out policy could also be not a nudge under my definition, but since that’s a change in the status of people, there would probably have to be stronger requirements for transparency and clarity.

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Salient 11.15.11 at 4:52 pm

…oh and I confess that what’s apparently the standard definition irritates me, and for exactly the reason you bring up–every act of the state is either a nudge (if it gives you options) or coercion (if it doesn’t). Well, bleh, we already have a word for the former category: non-coercive. I guess nudge is more evocative, and better acknowledges that the state’s exerting pressure on a person even when not coercing them, so, ok.

70

LizardBreath 11.15.11 at 5:18 pm

68: My understanding of what ‘nudge’ means, ideally, is that you take the program you described. And that your belief, as a democratically legitimate policy-maker, is that 60% of the population would benefit from participating in the program, and that if it’s made opt-in, only 30% of the population will opt in, but if it’s made opt-out, around 40% of the population will opt out. An opt-in program will be underused (assuming you know the optimal levels at which it should be used), while an opt-out program will be used the correct amount.

So you fully publicize all information about the program, you publicize the fact that it’s being made opt-out, you publicize why it’s being made opt-out — nothing’s concealed — but you do choose to make the program opt-out because you believe that even when people are as fully informed as you can make them, they will make different choices depending on how you set the program up.

It doesn’t depend on secrecy, and it can be as openly democratic as any other policy choice — the key elements are (1) a policy including an element of choice by public participants; (2) a belief by policy makers in what choice participants would generally be best off making; and (3) deliberate non-punitive design of the policy to increase the chance that participants will make the better choice.

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LizardBreath 11.15.11 at 5:25 pm

Also, ‘nudge’ isn’t that thrilling a concept — I don’t think it comes down to much more than “The structure of programs incorporating choice should be thoughtfully designed to encourage the choices policymakers believe to be beneficial.” Which seems to me to be obviously true, but also obviously not terribly revolutionary, except insofar as people hadn’t paid attention to how powerfully the manner in which choices are offered can influence the choices people make.

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Sebastian(1) 11.15.11 at 5:26 pm

too add on non-secrecy of nudges – Thaler and Sunstein, in their examples of nudges, have several that rely explicitly on self-nudging (e.g. gambling addicts placing themselves on a black-list for casinos). Nudges don’t have to be secret and I think one of the things that even pro-nudgers should take from Farrell and Shalizi is that nudges _shouldn’t_ be secret.

73

Tim Wilkinson 11.15.11 at 9:34 pm

Yes, but Sebastian(1), the more transparent – the more obtrusive, or the more genuinely informative – it is, the less of a nudge it is. Or so I assert, based on attempting the work that T&S were not really interested in, which is coming up with a coherent, distinct and interesting concept.

Your triumphant brandishing of a supposed counterexample is like a defender of mainstream n-c microeconomics rummaging around in the bottom drawer to find one of JQ’s papers – see, economics isn’t dominated by a doctrinaire bullshit model! Or Tim Worstall claiming that market capitalism is the greatest by reference to social democratic mixed economies. Or Dershowitz, who, his mind being free from the bugbear of consistency, can always find a quote in which he’s said the opposite of what he’s accused of arguing.

The fact is, you’ve got three kinds of supposed nudges, which can be illustrated by the 4 latest posts on the nudges blog.

1. http://nudges.org/2011/10/11/heres-how-washington-states-nudge-for-state-park-donations-works-via-its-web-site/

This one actually shows two kinds I’ve mentioned. The first is the one in which no default has been selected but a choice must be made (in order to achieve something else which it’s known the user wants): this one is not a nudge, and is not manipulative.

The second is, if anything is, a nudge, having a preselected default – which is of course there to get more people to donate. Presumably a range of underlying mechanisms, some of which may be genuinely perverese laziness or other oraationality about changing options (but one would like some clear evidence about this really). Others, basically light-touch manipulation, like making you feel a bit guilty at unchecking the box – is this OK? It’s kind of minimal, and after all, guilt is guilt – perhaps this is equally well-described as removing a possibility to ignore or stifle guilt (Paterno-ism)?

But of course it might not be guilt but conformism, just pure suggestion, some niggling feeling that you’re expected to donate and maybe it might ion some way be held against you if you don’t. These seem pretty overblown concerned in this case don’t seem a problem here because it’s no big deal – people ought to be able to cope with this minor kind of nudging, and even if they don;t it’s only $5. If they really cared that much about the $5, we say, they wouldn’t be so easily manipulated. (Yes, see how already it up to you to show why the matter is important enough – and of course that you are plaint and feebleminded enough! – for the manipulation to count as going beyond the normal level of Machiavellianism we just have to put up with.

But then of course there will be those who just aren’t really paying attention. They don’t, by the looks of it, have to make any further confirmation. Perhaps they will at least be reminded about it at the end when they pay the licence fee + any donations. They would then have the chance to crash out of the process – perhaps even to go back and change it in some reasonably graceful and convenient way. But nonetheless, no-one who designs default options (clue: ‘default’) is unaware that it will be the upshot of all those cases in which for one reason or another people fail to read the question and simply proceed to the next step.

But apart from tripping up the unwary, this example seems relatively harmless, largely because the manipulation (cf ‘secret’) involved is relatively minor . And as Lizardbreath says, edious, dull, uninteresting, nothing new or distinctive. But that’s largely because its a getting close to something else, which is not so harmless, which is the kind of thing that -filthy marketing scum- top creatives get up to:

2. http://nudges.org/2011/10/09/where-is-behavioral-economics-headed-in-the-marketing-worlding/

Which is, of course the deliberate attempt to trick people – or for those with a Theresa-May-like instinct for deniability, the ensuring that no negative weight whatsoever is placed on the possibility that people might make mistakes, and plenty of weight on an estimate of how many positive respionses will be gleaned. This is where we get to the realm of consumer capitalism and the marketers.

Make complaining or cancelling as difficult as possible, applying and paying as easy as possible. Put dominant, fluent salesfolk on the application line, timid and baffled sounding paupers in far way lands on the complaints line. This constant manipulation, the need for such watchfulness and suspicion (if you dopn;t have money to spare) is a pretty fucking demoralising way of interacting with an organisation. Even more demoralising when it’s not just all the corporate entities that have had teams of lawyers and psychologists and marketers and copywriters working on honing the script and every aspect of your interaction with them, but the government agencies, too. that’s not at all dysfunctional or apt to give rise to a paranoid mindset or anything, oh no – for Sunstein, it’s something to be encouraged with glee. (Just like the government infiltration of ‘extremist’ (i.e. 9-11 sceptic, dissenter, confabulator etc) websites.

These more extreme variants on bypassing rational faculties (oh yeah, did I mention all the emotional manipulation these marketers are employed to carry out – if you push button y, you can get x, did you know 10% have a mild phobia/OCD response to bacteria – just do an ad to scare ‘em shitless and we’ll sell these antibacterial banister-rail wipes just to them. It’s the same basic type of attitude as ‘bend back the little finger like this they will scream for mercy’, etc.

Now the more extensive kind of marketing tricks and manipulations aren’t really supposed to be what the headline nudge is like, but they are just a short distance down the slope from the advertised tedious examples. Indeed here’s one that’s only a tiny distance furtyher down: This one: http://nudges.org/2011/09/21/a-devious-little-marketing-nudge/ – note it’s actually described as ‘devious’.

3. http://nudges.org/2011/09/13/the-landfill-nudge-at-the-university-of-pennsylvania/ – I can’t see why T&S should be alloweed to claim this one for their team – it’s a perfectly sensible idea – to indicate, by way of specimens, which items should go in the recycle bin and which the ‘landfill’ bin. Specifying ‘landfill’ rather than ‘waste’ or ‘non-recyclable’ perhaps helps to remind people what will happen to the stuff they dump in that bin, bujt there’s nothing distinctively ‘nudgy’ about that – just a sensible and not-too loaded way of reminding people of the relevant info.

Basically what you’ve got here is a two step – there are acceptable nudges but they are small potatoes and rather uninteresting, or even as with the recycling, scarcely nudgeous at all. Then there is the whole toolkit of the marketer, including pushing everything as far as the law will permit, working on the grey areas, the interstices of the capitalist system (of which there are plenty) to wring out every last drip of advantage. This is where I see the real advantages for governments of making use of nudgery: behavioural economics, meaning pretty much the portion of social psychology that is useful to those who want to know how to sell stuff.

—————–

Cranky – so yeah, what’s the backstory you mention? I mean obviously he is one of the celebrity-careerist pseudo-intellectuals that Harvard likes to fill its chairs in the schools of economics and law (and presumably anything else related closely to politics). And obviously he is on message (“Cass Sunstein is…industry’s best friend inside the White House. He doesn’t like regulations.”; the conspiracy-theorist-as-dangerous-extremist bullshit). But is there some specific connecti0n to financial firms?

—–

+ just to repeat a general point – I don’t think the ‘technocrats’ and ‘top down’ angles – bureaucrats not being able to decide things for people – are really relevant to the question in, as it were, the object language. The question is ‘should the government utilise nudges to direct peoples’ decisions (for their own or the general good)? The fact is that a government is going to be involved in doing things which not everyone necessarily goes along with as a matter of course (to promote the good – what else?). Given that, the question of ‘nudges’ could arise for any form or style of governance in general.

—————

chris[“elicits behaviour which would not otherwise have been exhibited”] is essentially meaningless because “otherwise” cannot be defined Yes it can: it’s if the nudge policy weren’t implemented or, in most cases, the status quo (if the status quo is wrong in some other way – perhaps too many nudges – that may of course be worth taking a squint at, but doesn’t mean waving through the new nudge proposal). A nudge is as much a piece of policy as a drive, campaign, scheme, edict or prohibition – that’s the whole point of the discussion.

the alternative to a nudge is another nudge – not generally; usually the alternative to a nudge is ‘drift’ – that is, people making their unnudged decisions (or anyway manifesting their unnudged behaviour). The prevailing conditions in which people make (or don’t make) choices are not to be confused with ‘nudges’ – a nudge needs a nudger.

That’s not to say that people shouldn’t be assisted with everything they need to make choices – for example info of suitable simplicity. Further still, we can agree that there can be a tyranny of choice, given our limited capacities. Only the very rich can delegate enough of the administration of their affairs (their estate) to experts to get even close to the idea of the fully rational optimiser. The rest may use heuristics or symbolic value to make decisions under uncertainty. They may make a higher-order choice, perhaps based on rough assessment of best and worst cases, not to make the choice at all – not to invest the effort required to actively make the choice. P ). At the limit, they may be entirely unaware that there is any such choice.

So there may well be decisions which people should be relieved of the need to make. Some things may – of course – be such that there are policy reasons for not providing various alternatives (such as to opt out taxation by simple declaration). This is important, because the ole centrist Sunstein is here talking about being ‘libertarian’ – and does seem to mean, for example, that payroll deductions in support of basic pension provision (cf healthcare, etc) are not something that could be simply imposed by the res publica. ‘Nudges’ are required because the private system isn’t working – at the risk of overdoing the old Brecht quote, consumers have forfeited the trust of the government. Small wonder the remedy looks to be the kind of relentless trickery that corporate marketing departments are inexorably impelled towards by ‘market discipline’.

Or to put it another way, almost any behavior is behavior that would not have been exhibited under some set of alternative conditions, the question is what set. The basis of the theory of nudging is the fact that two sets of conditions neither of which involves coercion can nonetheless produce different behavior in a significant number of people. So if one of those sets of conditions produces outcomes more conducive to the public good than the other, it ought to be preferred as a matter of policy

But the point is to consider the mechanism at work, and reject it if it’s abusive or manipulative, relies on or unavoidably involves material ignorance, etc. There are standards for how a state apparatus should be able to intereact with its citizens, aren’t there.

—–

Bloix : More sophisticated people can still put together a plan that they like, but the great majority of employees, who don’t want to learn about this stuff are far more likely to participate.

I think this has a lot to do with why this sort of thing is so attractive to Sunstein and all his rioch mates. Those of us in the know about this kind of thing – and especially those of us who have lawyers and accountants and PAs to do all this shit for us – need haev nothing to fear from these ‘nudges’. They’re easy. We’re well past all that shit and onto advanced tax avoidance. It’s only the mugs (suckers) that will get nudged around – thsoe who are too busy, tired, ignorant, etc. to know any better. It is the illusion of universal freedom, but in fact it’s total freedom only for winners; for the losers, unwitting obedience.

(I’ve gone on a bit too long here already I reckon , but for an example of this kind of supposedly universalistic and free system which is in fact skewed in the same way, see this comment (2nd half) about unauthorised overdraft charges.

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