Realistic Reasons to be Bullish on Nudging

Essay by Ed Bradon: “Nudges are a valuable, modestly resourced and, as we shall see, dramatically underused way of improving people’s lives. Abandoning them now would be like discovering aspirin then immediately shutting down production because it doesn’t cure cancer.

Nudging’s value stems from its modest but unusual success in solving two hard problems. One is changing people’s behavior, in a sustainable way, in challenging contexts such as health, crime, and education, in the messiness of the real world. The second is getting stuff done in large organizations, particularly government. Most attempts at either one of these fail: over 80 percent of social projects and programs don’t work; big reform efforts are generally stymied, or backfire.

By contrast, nudges do get implemented—albeit with a lot of hard work behind the scenes—and when they are they tend to do some good. Looking at trials from two nudge units, Stefano DellaVigna and Elizabeth Linos find that a sample of low-cost, light-touch nudges do better than their control groups by 8 percent on average. In a landscape littered with failures and overclaiming, small robust improvements that affect thousands of people are worth having…

But might we still be overinvesting in nudges? Perhaps they have proven so popular that the best opportunities have been exhausted, making it time to redeploy resources elsewhere?

Unfortunately, the opposite is true: we haven’t picked even the lowest hanging fruit. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for central governments can illustrate this opportunity. A typical government might have 10 large departments of state (a department for education, for example), each with 10 directorates (such as the organization in charge of apprenticeships and technical education). And each of these could easily have 20 nudge-able systems (a system through which young people can sign up for apprenticeships, say). Each system can accommodate multiple nudges: you could try boosting sign-ups by pre-filling parts of the form, for example, while also reminding students at a timely moment. One government × ten departments × ten directorates × twenty systems × three nudges each gets us a total of 6,000 possible nudges….(More)”.