How nudge theory is ageing well

Julian Baggini at the Financial Times: “A decade ago, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge was on the desk of every serious politician and policy wonk. Its central thesis was alluringly simple: by changing the environment in which we make decisions — the “choice architecture” — people could be encouraged to do things that were good for them and for society without governments compelling them to do anything.

The idea hit the liberal sweet-spot, promising maximum social impact for minimal interference with personal freedom. In 2010, Britain’s government set up its Behavioural Insights Team — popularly known as the “nudge unit” — to put these ideas into practice.

Around the world, others followed. Sunstein is justly proud that 10m poor American children now get free breakfast and lunch during the academic year as a result of just one such intervention making enrolment for free school meals automatic.

Ten years on, Sunstein has produced two new books to win over the unconverted and boost the faith of true believers. One, On Freedom, is a tiny, commuter-friendly pamphlet between hard covers. The other, Trusting Nudges, co-authored with the behavioural economist Lucia A Reisch, is a short, thoughtful, measured and important analysis of what citizens actually think about nudging and why that matters — albeit with the dry, academic furniture of endless tables, footnotes and technical appendices.

Despite the stylistic gulf between them, the two books are best read together as a response to those who would like to give nudges the nudge, claiming that they are covert, manipulative, an insult to human agency and place too much trust in governments and too little on human reason. Not only that, but for all the hype, nudges only work at the margins, delivering relatively minor results without having any major impact on poverty, inequity or inequality.

On Freedom economically and elegantly takes apart the accusation that nudges undermine liberty. Sunstein rightly points out that a nudge is only a nudge by definition if it leaves the nudged able to choose otherwise. For example, the system adopted by several jurisdictions to put people on organ donation registers by default carries with it the right to opt out. Nor are the best nudges covert.

There may not be a sign at the canteen telling you that healthy foods have been put at the front because that’s where you’re more likely to choose them but organisations that adopt this as a policy can and should do so openly. Sunstein’s most important argument is that “we cannot wish choice architecture away”: something has to be on the supermarket shelves that people tend to take more from, something has to be the default for benefit claims. The question is not whether we nudge but how we do so: with forethought or without….(More)”