Playing politics: exposing the flaws of nudge thinking

Book Review by Pat Kane in The New Scientist: “The cover of this book echoes its core anxiety. A giant foot presses down on a sullen, Michael Jackson-like figure – a besuited citizen coolly holding off its massive weight. This is a sinister image to associate with a volume (and its author, Cass Sunstein) that should be able to proclaim a decade of success in the government’s use of “behavioural science”, or nudge theory. But doubts are brewing about its long-term effectiveness in changing public behaviour – as well as about its selective account of evolved human nature.


Nudging has had a strong and illustrious run at the highest level. Outgoing US President Barack Obama and former UK Prime Minister David Cameron both set up behavioural science units at the heart of their administrations (Sunstein was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs from 2009 to 2012).

Sunstein insists that the powers that be cannot avoid nudging us. Every shop floor plan, every new office design, every commercial marketing campaign, every public information campaign, is an “architecting of choices”. As anyone who ever tried to leave IKEA quickly will suspect, that endless, furniture-strewn path to the exit is no accident.

Nudges “steer people in particular directions, but also allow them to go their own way”. They are entreaties to change our habits, to accept old or new norms, but they presume thatwe are ultimately free to refuse the request.

However, our freedom is easily constrained by “cognitive biases”. Our brains, say the nudgers, are lazy, energy-conserving mechanisms, often overwhelmed by information. So a good way to ensure that people pay into their pensions, for example, is to set payment as a “default” in employment contracts, so the employee has to actively untick the box. Defaults of all kinds exploit our preference for inertia and the status quo in order to increase future security….

Sunstein makes useful distinctions between nudges and the other things governments and enterprises can do. Nudges are not “mandates” (laws, regulations, punishments). A mandate would be, for example, a rigorous and well-administered carbon tax, secured through a democratic or representative process. A “nudge” puts smiley faces on your energy bill, and compares your usage to that of the eco-efficient Joneses next door (nudgers like to game our herd-like social impulses).

In a fascinating survey section, which asks Americans and others what they actually think about being the subjects of the “architecting” of their choices, Sunstein discovers that “if people are told that they are being nudged, they will react adversely and resist”.

This is why nudge thinking may be faltering – its understanding of human nature unnecessarily (and perhaps expediently) downgrades our powers of conscious thought….(More)

See The Ethics of Influence: Government in the age of behavioral science Cass R. Sunstein, Cambridge University Press