There is a backlash against Nudge Theory. In the original “nudge manifesto”,  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein promoted the political value of nudging. Roger Miles tells why the assumption is due a reappraisal.

When it first hit our desks during that turbulent summer of 2008, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness looked like a godsend. With a global financial crisis destroying public budgets, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s pop-science guidebook offered a miraculous way for resource-squeezed governments to win back the voters’ trust. Suddenly, the minister could seize a new magic wand called behavioural science, wave it about a bit and – presto – create pro-social change at minimal cost. As a bonus, nudge economists helped the minister to step over the wounded body of classical economics: the global crash had resulted from their discredited “rational maximiser” assumptions, so we should all move on. What was not to like? 

Everybody wanted to play. American and European governments fell upon Nudge like starving beasts. They set up behavioural expert teams. They orated about the social and budgetary dividends from this buzzy new “choice architecture” of “libertarian paternalism” and “decision reframing”. Nudge began to guide policy-making. Ministers loudly proclaimed the success of its forays into pension enrolment, organ donation, tax takings, public hygiene and more.

What a difference 15 years makes. Amid post-Covid scepticism, we are seeing a backlash against nudgers’ early utopianism.

And yet… What a difference 15 years makes. Amid post-Covid scepticism, we are seeing a backlash against nudgers’ early utopianism. In an eye-catching twist, the new sceptics of Nudge include some of its original cheerleaders and proponents. Academics are recanting their own “naïve involvement” in the Nudge project, accusing it of corrupt misuse as a tool for “displacing burdens of ethical responsibility from producers onto consumers”. Is Nudge a tool of anti-democratic oppression?  

A deeper, darker problem is also emerging into view. While Nudge faces suspicion as a behavioural tool of policy-making, there are larger questions about the authenticity of behavioural science itself. Against a background of generally increasing public trust in science, 2023 saw a public less keen to believe in behavioural scientists after an audit revealed a “clusterfake” of leading academic researchers manipulating data. The claims of fraud – and/or poor experimental practice – cast doubt on some core tenets of behavioural science. A recent flurry of retreats and retractions among big-name behavioural faculties has added urgency to questions about universities’ “paper mill fraud” where everything from authorships to manuscripts are sold to desperate researchers in the publish-or-perish world of modern academia. There is soul-searching in the academic establishment. One might also expect political anxiety to be rising, as voters who feel they’ve been conned are notoriously keen on revenge through the ballot box. Was the new science just too good to be true?

It all started so well

The application of behavioural science (B-Sci) to government marked a revolution in public- and private-sector thinking. The B-Sci wave rolled in initially from the Netherlands in the early 1990s, picking up momentum during the 2000s in the US and UK, as decades’ worth of academic analysis began to guide the design of rules and laws. As an influx of social psychology – which some described as plain common sense, just scientifically stated – helped to wash away creaky old economic assumptions, we saw it changing the face of policy-making, commercial decision-making, and even popular culture.

There was always a great allure to nudging. Governments could quietly – covertly, even – steer citizens’ choices on the pretext of “helping people make better decisions for themselves”.

There was always a great allure to nudging. Governments could quietly – covertly, even – steer citizens’ choices on the pretext of “helping people make better decisions for themselves”. However, that always rather depended on who gets to define what’s “better”. Although that question rarely troubles the policymaking classes, it is now challenged by the more sceptical citizens of the 2020s; as the full extent of Covid mishandling has emerged, people are warier than ever of public institutions. Nudging seems so 2010s, lying somewhere along a scale from paternalistic to manipulative.  

It’s not just the public who are suspicious. As leading apostates against Nudge, the behavioural scientists Chater and Loewenstein point out how it has evolved, not only pro-socially but also anti-socially. At its worst, nudging expediently shifts ethical responsibility away from business, regulators and government onto individuals. Big system-level actors can and do use nudging to displace responsibility and to guilt-trip citizens instead. There are numerous examples (see box: Abusive nudgers).

Abusive nudgers?
Fossil fuel producers and the carbon footprint

In the early 2000s Oil giant BP , published a carbon footprint calculator, purportedly to help citizens take greater personal responsibility for fossil fuel consumption. At one level, the campaign succeeded spectacularly: hundreds of thousands of consumers modified their behaviour, to use less petrol and oil-associated products. Meanwhile, the larger question of regulating the climate change arising from fossil fuel production remained unanswered.

“Defined benefits” pensions

Left to their own devices, few people set aside enough money for their later years. That’s because we are all deeply prone to intuitively avoid confronting decisions about our long-term future wellbeing. As a result, many people reach retirement age with too little funds to enjoy a decent quality of life. True, the US and UK governments are proud to have introduced nudges in the form of “acceptance by default” systems that take and set aside a small proportion of people’s present pay packets to invest in a pension. However, this masks a background change in the pensions industry that has harmed almost all citizens: the industry’s systemic shift away from “defined benefit” employer-funded pensions (which ensured a good level of income on retirement) and into “defined contribution” consumer-funded schemes – (essentially, do-it-yourself setting of savings level). Under cover of this jargon, employers have been quick to spot the opportunity to save on payroll costs, while shifting the weight of pensions planning onto individuals. Despite the new wave of nudge-supported pensions, the problem of poverty in retirement continues to grow at a generational level.    

Junk food manufacturing

Rather than limit producers’ freedom to make what they like, public policy has focused on nudging retailers to promote “healthy option” labelling. Meanwhile rising levels of obesity remain a major challenge to public health care. Is it more socially equitable to let junk food producers keep on very profitably marketing unhealthy options, while guilt-tripping individuals over healthier choices? Or might a stronger system-level regulatory lever make a more meaningful difference?

Such institution-led nudges worsen societal inequalities. They betray the original, higher purpose of nudging: to improve decision-making by designing “choice architectures” that guide people toward a socially balanced set of benign outcomes. All too often, nudges have been devised by system-level actors to help them shunt away “externalities”  (socially costly consequences), deflecting system-level problems directly onto the shoulders of citizens. 

Whilst at one level, every citizen does have a duty of care for the environment and for everyone’s social wellbeing, personal actions exert little power at sector level. And yes, consumer boycotts can work; but you can’t boycott everything, and why should you have to? Rather, the “invisible hand” of markets seems usually to protect vested interests. Have policy-makers allowed nudging to become simply one more way for system-level actors to duck the responsibility and cost of making substantive change?

Meanwhile, the scientific rigour of Nudge’s underlying behavioural studies is also under attack. There is talk of a “replication crisis”  as auditors re-analyse many of the discipline’s cornerstone studies. If key experiments and fieldwork can’t be reliably reproduced, the validity of the entire field lies in doubt.

In recent years there has been a rise in misconduct scandals in behavioural science, perhaps because those responsible so very much want to believe that their magic is true.

In recent years there has been a rise in misconduct scandals in behavioural science, perhaps because those responsible so very much want to believe that their magic is true. Several big-name behavioural researchers have had their evidence-bending ‘outed and publications retracted. The retractors include – with deep irony – academic experts in the psychology of lying (although, this being the US, some are counter-suing too). If there’s rot in the foundations of the science, how robust are any policies that rely upon it?

While the critiques are alarming, they don’t necessarily mean that policymakers must now bid farewell to behavioural science entirely. We must reassess and look to rehabilitate behavioural science as a tool of governance. Here’s how: 

  • ethical guidelines – set up government-backed ethical guidelines to limit misuses of nudging, ensuring that policymakers consider ethical aspects of any nudge before implementing it along with who bears responsibility for outcomes, do the burdens of understanding and risk-taking, fall fairly;
  • transparency – policies should clearly show how and why particular nudges are being considered, allowing for public scrutiny;
  • scientific rigour – any scientific studies that inform a specific nudge design should have already been subject to peer-review and replicated, to confirm that they are ethical and truly effective; and
  • collective responsibility – ending the focus solely on nudging individuals toward better choices and first considering enlisting systems-level actors to behave with a greater regard to social equity.

If behavioural science is a serious discipline – assuming we can ever get past a long-running spat between natural and social scientists – it would benefit from a period of quiet, critical self-examination. Let its scientists look to improve and expose their methods, for the general good.

Yes, that will take a collective and conscientious effort from scientists, ethicists, and policy-makers. But the prize is worth pursuing. 

The aim should be to move beyond old ways of simply “finding a nudge opportunity”. Instead, seek genuine system-level transformations; nudge top-down and bottom-up. Where are there socially dysfunctional edifices, where a behaviourally smart reread could make lives better? Not just the lives of those with system-level vested interests, but for all of us end-users of the system. Now, there’s a challenge for the next administration.

Roger Miles

Roger researches human-factor risks in organisations and advises professional standard-setting bodies. His books on improved reporting frameworks for Conduct and Culture have been endorsed by financial regulators worldwide. He is …

Read More »

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *