Nudge-o-Nomics

deciding-quote

Childhood Obesity News looked at the work of University of Chicago behavioral economist Richard Thaler, who studied people’s decision-making around money. With law professor Cass Sunstein, Thaler developed the notion of the nudge, “a subtle, non-coercive government intervention that can have outsize impacts because of human cognitive biases.” An example of how this principle is applied can be found in our post, “Behavioral Economics and School Lunches.”

For Forbes.com, Andrea Renda describes nudging as “a way to gently steer individuals towards specific forms of behavior by engaging in so-called ‘choice architecture‘.” And what might that be? Renda elaborates on the concept:

It was, de facto, the consolidation of two fields of social science: marketing and public policy, where the former was convincingly applied to the latter. The same techniques that had been applied for decades by corporations to conquer end users’ attention and willingness to pay were now being put to use in public policy, with a view to improving social welfare and policy effectiveness.

So, in other words, this is all manipulation, which is often regarded as a sneaky and underhanded way of doing things. Is manipulation always bad? Some philosophers would say yes. Others would say it’s the only way to get things done.

Folk wisdom has always recognized the successful techniques that characterize relationships between the sexes. Women whisper to each other the secret of getting a man to do something. Trick him into thinking it was his idea. Men pass along the arcane knowledge of how to handle a woman. Listen to her advice, say “Yes, dear,” and then go ahead and do what you meant to in the first place.

The “gently steer” language pertaining to choice architecture is reminiscent of a technique shared in parenting classes. Don’t ask a child, “What do you want for supper?” Instead, structure the question to preclude any unacceptable answer. “Do you want peas or corn?” Both are vegetables, so the parent wins either way. Meanwhile, the child is given the illusion of choice, and blissfully enjoys a fantasy of autonomy.

Experts have discovered how to take that principle and scale it up to the science of running an entire country. Renda says:

Finally, with the advent of big data analytics and artificial intelligence, the possibilities for governments to nudge individuals by engaging in advanced choice (or code) architecture appear to be exponentially increasing… The popularization of behavioral economics in the form of relatively straightforward experiments paved the way for a successful age of direct implementation in policymaking…

There are two main forms of nudging. One persuades the individual to choose a course of action more beneficial to himself; the other aims to persuade a person to do what is best for society as a whole. Ostensibly, the government practices these techniques to wisely guide, as a mother or a father would, the choices the citizens make.

One type of gentle, mental manipulation convinces a person to go for health, safety and prosperity, instead of cigarettes. Another type convinces people to not toss leftover medications into the toilet, because it harms the environment and the creatures living in it. In a perfect world, it would stop there.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “This headline is a nudge to get you to read about Nobel economist Richard Thaler,” Vox.com, 10/09/17
Source: “When The Nobel Prize Goes Pop: Richard Thaler And The Uncertain Future Of ‘Nudge’,” Forbes.com, 10/21/17
Photo credit: symphony of love on Visualhunt/CC BY-SA

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