Nudging – good or evil? Brits worry about potential mind control, Swedes find it fun and useful

This week on the BBC’s Moral Maze, (listen here until December 4th) panelists discuss “nudges” and if and how governments should be using theories of behavioral economics to encourage people to perform in certain ways. A few of the panelists were quite alarmed that the British government was employing “behavioral architects” to craft policies that seemingly coerce the public to act ways that could benefit themselves and the society at large.

Because the British seem to support their nanny state, it is unclear to me why they view nudges as being the first misstep that sends civil society into an Orwellian dystopia. (Wouldn’t be the first.) Aren’t nudges just another way that the state can protect its inhabitants from making bad decisions? (Rather than scolding them.) In the program, a few panelists worried that the government would use nudges as a way to manipulate and control the choices that people made. What they failed to understand is that people still have choices that can be freely made.

Just because there is now a picture of a fly in the urinal, doesn’t mean that you have to aim for it.

Just because now organ donation is the default, doesn’t mean that you can’t opt out of it. It just requires that you actually read your driver’s license document before signing it, if you want to make sure that you check that extra box so that your organs are selfishly buried with you. (For something like changing the default, making a choice counter to the default might take a little more thinking on the part of the citizens, but the choice is still there.)

The nice thing about nudges is that they can be unobtrusive, innocuous aids to help us make better decisions. The key is that the decision is still there to be made.

While it is interesting to discuss the morality of governments practicing nudging its citizens and to what level that nudging should be made salient, I am rather more interested learn about nudges that have already been enacted in the real world.

A Volkswagen-branded initiative in Sweden sought to change people’s behavior for the better and have fun while doing so. Their site showcases four great examples of how nudges in the real world can encourage people to perform pro-social actions, such as picking up litter in the park or driving the speed limit, or actions that benefit the individual directly, such as taking the stairs. In these examples, the consumers/citizens/performers are delighted and entertained by the options given.

While The Fun Theory demonstrations are probably too costly to be scaled, their success should encourage governments, companies, non-profits to create and execute  new nudges to encourage individuals to better themselves and their communities.

For additional reading, consult Thaler’s research, the popular book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Thaler and Sunstein, or social psychology research around framing and heuristics.


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