25 June 2013
Magazine issue 2922.
NOT long before David Cameron became UK prime minister, he famously prescribed some holiday reading for his colleagues: a book modestly entitled Nudge.
Cameron wasn’t the only world leader to find it compelling. US president Barack Obama soon appointed one of its authors, Cass Sunstein, a social scientist at the University of Chicago, to a powerful position in the White House. And thus the nudge bandwagon began rolling. It has been picking up speed ever since (see “Nudge power: Big government’s little pushes“).
So what’s the big idea? We don’t always do what’s best for ourselves, thanks to cognitive biases and errors that make us deviate from rational self-interest. The premise of Nudge is that subtly offsetting or exploiting these biases can help people to make better choices.
If you live in the US or UK, you’re likely to have been nudged towards a certain decision at some point. You probably didn’t notice. That’s deliberate: nudging is widely assumed to work best when people aren’t aware of it. But that stealth breeds suspicion: people recoil from the idea that they are being stealthily manipulated.
There are other grounds for suspicion. It sounds glib: a neat term for a slippery concept. You could argue that it is a way for governments to avoid taking decisive action. Or you might be concerned that it lets them push us towards a convenient choice, regardless of what we really want.
These don’t really hold up. Our distaste for being nudged is understandable, but is arguably just another cognitive bias, given that our behaviour is constantly being discreetly influenced by others. What’s more, interventions only qualify as nudges if they don’t create concrete incentives in any particular direction. So the choice ultimately remains a free one.