Nudge Theory, Morality and Ethics


As we have seen in the past few posts, the benefits of nudging are not solidly proven. Underlying that consideration is another that some proponents ignore, while others agonize over. Is it moral and ethical? And if not, how can we allow the government to do it?

Forbes writer Andrea Renda named the approach as an example of the benign power of nudging — but did not explain exactly how he came to this conclusion. Any nudge-power that a single graphic may possess must surely be cancelled out by the fact that people see thousands of images per day. Regardless, the problem here is that many authorities say that MyPlate is nonsense, and gives bad advice.

So, of what use is a persuasive technique that convinces people to do what’s bad for them? Where is the virtue in a program designed to create conviction regarding a practice that is beneficial to neither the individual nor society? Morally, how is this any better than what advertisers do for filthy lucre?

Of nudge and choice architecture co-developer Cass Sunstein, Renda says:

Empirical literature reported by Sunstein himself revealed that “nudgees”, those targeted by a given nudge, tend to be significantly affected only by the nudges they agree with, and in a related vein, “if people are told that they are being nudged, they will react adversely and resist”.

Ruling by nudge is sometimes called “libertarian paternalism.” When people need convincing, little psychological tricks are undeniably preferable to whips and guns. Still, some people find nudging and similar practices uncomfortably similar to propagandizing, brainwashing, “gaslighting,” and other types of non-violent coercion. They experience an instinctual revulsion, followed by a compelling need to resist — which may be why, if they happen to be research subjects, they sometimes mess up studies.

Nudging is a method that employs suggestions and positive reinforcement, but fundamentally it is a tactic, and people don’t like tactics to be used against them. Some groups, like obese people, may be overly sensitized to being “handled” because they are so used to negative nudges, like tiny airline seats that seem to make the demand to be skinny.

Cass Sunstein himself wrote a paper called “Nudging and Choice Architecture: Ethical Considerations.” We won’t go into them all here, but he noted seven objections that can be made: the implied paternalism, manipulation, coercion on the part of the architects; and the damage to the dignity and autonomy of the nudgees.

In a Guardian piece subtitled “How people can play with your mind,” Nick Chater reminds the reader of how annoying and potentially painful it is to know that you are being manipulated, even for an allegedly good cause. When science makes it easier for a government to mold the psyches of the people into a shape that pleases the government, this is not always seen as progress. Chater says:

A good, honest, nudge is one that works even when we know we are being nudged, and why. But the spell cast by a bad, manipulative, nudge is broken as soon as its secret is revealed.

And it is not only the spell cast by that particular nudge that loses its power. When the whole nudge thing is handled ineptly the results can be mistrust, suspicion, and paranoia. So it is definitely worth taking the trouble to do it well.

Your responses and feedback are welcome!

Source: “When The Nobel Prize Goes Pop: Richard Thaler And The Uncertain Future Of ‘Nudge’,”, 10/21/17
Source: “The nudge theory and beyond: how people can play with your mind,”, 09/12/15
Photo credit: Pixel Addict on Visualhunt/CC BY

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About Dr. Robert A. Pretlow

Dr. Robert A. Pretlow is a pediatrician and childhood obesity specialist. He has been researching and spreading awareness on the childhood obesity epidemic in the US for more than a decade.
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Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the American Society of Animal Science 2020 Conference
What’s Causing Obesity in Companion Animals and What Can We Do About It

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the World Obesity Federation 2019 Conference:
Food/Eating Addiction and the Displacement Mechanism

Dr. Pretlow’s Multi-Center Clinical Trial Kick-off Speech 2018:
Obesity: Tackling the Root Cause

Dr. Pretlow’s 2017 Workshop on
Treatment of Obesity Using the Addiction Model

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation for
TEC and UNC 2016

Dr. Pretlow’s invited presentation at the 2015 Obesity Summit in London, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s invited keynote at the 2014 European Childhood Obesity Group Congress in Salzburg, Austria.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2013 European Congress on Obesity in Liverpool, UK.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2011 International Conference on Childhood Obesity in Lisbon, Portugal.

Dr. Pretlow’s presentation at the 2010 Uniting Against Childhood Obesity Conference in Houston, TX.

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