Nudging people to make good choices can backfire

Bruce Bower in ScienceNews: “Nudges are a growth industry. Inspired by a popular line of psychological research and introduced in a best-selling book a decade ago, these inexpensive behavior changers are currently on a roll.

Policy makers throughout the world, guided by behavioral scientists, are devising ways to steer people toward decisions deemed to be in their best interests. These simple interventions don’t force, teach or openly encourage anyone to do anything. Instead, they nudge, exploiting for good — at least from the policy makers’ perspective — mental tendencies that can sometimes lead us astray.

But new research suggests that low-cost nudges aimed at helping the masses have drawbacks. Even simple interventions that work at first can lead to unintended complications, creating headaches for nudgers and nudgees alike…

Promising results of dozens of nudge initiatives appear in two government reports issued last September. One came from the White House, which released the second annual report of its Social and Behavioral Sciences Team. The other came from the United Kingdom’s Behavioural Insights Team. Created by the British government in 2010, the U.K. group is often referred to as the Nudge Unit.

In a September 20, 2016, Bloomberg View column, Sunstein said the new reports show that nudges work, but often increase by only a few percentage points the number of people who, say, receive government benefits or comply with tax laws. He called on choice architects to tackle bigger challenges, such as finding ways to nudge people out of poverty or into higher education.

Missing from Sunstein’s comments and from the government reports, however, was any mention of a growing conviction among some researchers that well-intentioned nudges can have negative as well as positive effects. Accepting automatic enrollment in a company’s savings plan, for example, can later lead to regret among people who change jobs frequently or who realize too late that a default savings rate was set too low for their retirement needs. E-mail reminders to donate to a charity may work at first, but annoy recipients into unsubscribing from the donor list.

“I don’t want to get rid of nudges, but we’ve been a bit too optimistic in applying them to public policy,” says behavioral economist Mette Trier Damgaard of Aarhus University in Denmark.

Nudges, like medications for physical ailments, require careful evaluation of intended and unintended effects before being approved, she says. Policy makers need to know when and with whom an intervention works well enough to justify its side effects.

Default downer

That warning rings especially true for what is considered a shining star in the nudge universe — automatic enrollment of employees in retirement savings plans. The plans, called defaults, take effect unless workers decline to participate….

But little is known about whether automatic enrollees are better or worse off as time passes and their personal situations change, says Harvard behavioral economist Brigitte Madrian. She coauthored the 2001 paper on the power of default savings plans.

Although automatic plans increase savings for those who otherwise would have squirreled away little or nothing, others may lose money because they would have contributed more to a self-directed retirement account, Madrian says. In some cases, having an automatic savings account may encourage irresponsible spending or early withdrawals of retirement money (with penalties) to cover debts. Such possibilities are plausible but have gone unstudied.

In line with Madrian’s concerns, mathematical models developed by finance professor Bruce Carlin of the University of California, Los Angeles and colleagues suggest that people who default into retirement plans learn less about money matters, and share less financial information with family and friends, than those who join plans that require active investment choices.

Opt-out savings programs “have been oversimplified to the public and are being sold as a great way to change behavior without addressing their complexities,” Madrian says. Research needs to address how well these plans mesh with individuals’ personalities and decision-making styles, she recommends….

Researchers need to determine how defaults and other nudges instigate behavior changes before unleashing them on the public, says philosopher of science Till Grüne-Yanoff of the Royal Institute of Technology in Stockholm….

Sometimes well-intentioned, up-front attempts to get people to do what seems right come back to bite nudgers on the bottom line.

Consider e-mail prompts and reminders. ….A case in point is a study submitted for publication by Damgaard and behavioral economist Christina Gravert of the University of Gothenburg in Sweden. E-mailed donation reminders sent to people who had contributed to a Danish anti-poverty charity increased the number of donations in the short term, but also triggered an upturn in the number of people unsubscribing from the list.

People’s annoyance at receiving reminders perceived as too frequent or pushy cost the charity money over the long haul, Damgaard holds. Losses of list subscribers more than offset the financial gains from the temporary uptick in donations, she and Gravert conclude.

“Researchers have tended to overlook the hidden costs of nudging,” Damgaard says….(More)”