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 MyPlate.gov 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’,” Forbes.com, 10/21/17
Source: “The nudge theory and beyond: how people can play with your mind,” TheGuardian.com, 09/12/15
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