Big Brother is Nudging You



Big Brother is Nudging You

It seems to be common knowledge that men, when using the bathroom sometimes have a problem with “zeroing in” on the target. In a frequently used toilet, say in an airport, missing the mark can easily change the toilets environment in a very unpleasant way. By attaching a fly into the urinals inside Amsterdam’s Schiphol International Airport, this problem was contained in a ingenious way. Providing a target led to a 80% decline of spillage. The fly, a simple modification in the choice architecture, is a so called “nudge” that led to a socially more acceptable behaviour. As  Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein put it: “It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it”. The two professors are pioneers in the increasingly important field of Behavioral Economics and authors of the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”. The book describes the technique of nudging and its  applications to help people take better decisions in their lives. When nudging someone, you change his behavior without actually changing the set of choices. The authors claim that nudging does not forbid, reward, or punish any particular choices. Instead, it guides toward a particular choice by changing the reference point, the default option, the anchor, or the description.

Libertarian Paternalism

Another popular example of the book is the design of a school cafeteria. Someone has the responsibility of deciding how to display the food in a school cafeteria. Decisions about food are influenced by its placement. Several options are available: The items could be arranged to maximize profits or just randomly. But they could also be arranged in a way that makes the children take the most nutritious decision. The person who designs this background against which the kids make their decisions is a so called “choice architect”. He or she has the “responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions”, whether or not this influence is recognized. In most cases the choice architecture has to be designed in one way, or another.  

The policy concept of pushing people towards better choices without limiting their liberty is labeled with what seems to be an oxymoron: Libertarian Paternalism. Paternalistic, because it embodies the idea that a choice architect hast the right to alter people’s behaviour, in order to improve their lives (e.g. make it longer, healthier). Libertarian, because freedom of choice has to be preserved at the same time. If someone wants to smoke, eat a lot of junk-food or choose a badly designed pension scheme, he won’t be stopped or hindered by a libertarian paternalist. The result is a concept that connects freedom from constraints to well-intentioned guidance. It draws from insights of behavioral economics and is based on the idea that our decision making is influenced by a number of widespread cognitive  biases and irrationalities, which makes it all but rational. This idea opposes the traditional view of economists, that individuals act consistently rational and narrowly self-interested, usually pursuing their subjectively-defined ends optimally, whatever constraints they face.  

To Nudge or not to Nudge?

The practice found enthusiastic advocates across the political spectrum and on both sides of the Atlantic Ocean. The Obama administration launched a Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST), David Cameron Tories have installed the “Nudge Unit” and chancellor Merkel has recently joined them in their pursuit of nudging the citizen into the right direction. Their experts shall improve our decisions: From healthcare, environment and business management over organ donation to nutrition. It is furthermore regarded as a useful new tool in the field of economic development.

Some of the assumption of libertarian paternalism are, however, deeply worrying. They imply that benevolent technocrats, who gained superior knowledge by means of science (statistical + experimental results) nudge people towards their own best interest. These technocrats, or experts, are individuals who exercise government authority, because of their knowledge. They know what ordinary people want. They even know it better than these people themself, who are subject to cognitive biases. The people will then be nudged towards what would have been their choice, had they not been influenced by barriers to rationality. This assumption is of a deeply normative nature and so allows the regulators conceptions of well-being to replace those of the recipients.

It is impossible for the recipient of the regulation to comment, change or correct this regulation. There is no feedback mechanism in place. So how can technocrats, subject to biases themselves, detect, correct and learn from their errors? Many examples show, that technocracy has not been free of defects, especially when lacking democratic control.

Experiments show that providing information to the people is crucial: Ordinary people are well capable of understanding complicated policy questions and reaching well-thought-out conclusions, when given enough information. Consulting experts is, without a doubt, a smart thing to do, but there should be a dialog instead of a one-way-communication. Democratic arrangements guarantee diversity and pluralism, which makes them more appropriate for problem solving than technocratic ones.

Democratic processes can be slow and troublesome. This makes the fast and often low cost nudging approach a very tantalizing opportunity. Democracy is, however, way better in discovering and advancing human preferences than any technocratic procedure. It is most certainly better in protecting these preferences, when challenged by bureaucrats who are not well-intended. Furthermore, it seems more appropriate to mirror the normative conceptions of society.   

Bypassing democratic institutions should hence be avoided. Nevertheless, a fruitful dialog between expert and citizen should be embedded within a democracy. Once dialog is prevented in order to enforce certain policies with manipulative, masked and unaccountable means, the very heart of democracy is at stake.

Thinking back to the fly in the Amsterdam airport, it seems hard to find something inappropriate about it. Nudging should, however, not been taken lightly. We should restrain wide-spread implementation and be very cautious about its use. If used, a high level of transparency is an absolute necessity. Furthermore, we should think twice before implementing it as a tool in development aid. Don’t do unto others what you would not have done unto you.


Works Cited

Picture used with the kind approval of Paul Blow.

Bovens, Luc. “The Ethics of Nudge.” Preference Change (2009): 207-19. Print.

“Nudge Blog · Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” Nudge Blog. Web. 28 June 2016.

Republic, The New. “Easy Does It.” New Republic. Web. 28 June 2016.

Shalizi, Henry Farrell and Cosma. “Does Nudging Work? A Critique of Sunstein and Thaler.” Slate Magazine. 12 Nov. 2011. Web. 29 June 2016.

Sugden, Robert. “On Nudging: A Review of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein.” International Journal of the Economics of Business 16.3 (2009): 365-73. Print.

Thaler, Richard H., and Cass R. Sunstein. Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale UP, 2008. Print.

2 thoughts on “Big Brother is Nudging You

  1. I remembered when we had dicussion of the article written by Thaler and Sunstein. The paper itself is thought provoking, “Libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron”, and the content led to really nice arguments among the respondents.

    What I really find interesting is the idea of the default rule, and how this totally affect the decision making process of the supposed rational individual. At some point, I linked it to Christopher Nolan’s Inception (2010) * Nice movie though, highly recommended*.

    A good example is the retirement plan. While we all understand that we need to save for the future, would you opt in into a retirement plan if the default option is that you do not have a retirement plan, and you have to “sign up” for it.

    However, I think my major reservation about the idea of libertarian parternalism is the integrity of the choice architect. Can they really be trusted, and do they really have full information and not bounded by their own rationality?


  2. Hi and thanks for your comment!

    As you probably guessed from the text, we have some concerns about nudging in common.
    I think it is a fact that the so called choice architect does not have full information und suffers from the same mental flaws as every other human being.

    That’s why I would recommend a high level of transparency, some kind of feedback mechanism and democratic control, if the technique is used. Furthermore, I think it is increasingly difficult to apply these rules, if the one using nudging is a private actor. It is not a coincidence, that sweets and candy are placed on kids eye level right where people queue.


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