David Brooks in the New York Times: “We’re entering the age of what’s been called “libertarian paternalism.” Government doesn’t tell you what to do, but it gently biases the context so that you find it easier to do things you think are in your own self-interest.
Government could design forms where the default option is to donate organs or save more for retirement. Individuals would have to actively opt out to avoid doing these things. Government could tell air-conditioner makers to build in a little red light to announce when the filter needs changing. That would make homes more energy efficient, since people are too lazy to change the filters promptly otherwise. Government could crack down on companies that exploit common cognitive errors to induce you to pay more for your mortgage, bank account, credit card or car warranty. Or, most notoriously, government could make it harder for you to buy big, sugary sodas.
But this raises a philosophic question. Do we want government stepping in to protect us from our own mistakes? Many people argue no…
I’d call it social paternalism. Most of us behave somewhat decently because we are surrounded by social norms and judgments that make it simpler for us to be good. To some gentle extent, government policy should embody those norms, a preference for saving over consumption, a preference for fitness over obesity, a preference for seat belts and motorcycle helmets even though some people think it’s cooler not to wear them. In some cases, there could be opt-out provisions.
These days, we have more to fear from a tattered social fabric than from a suffocatingly tight one. Some modest paternalism might be just what we need.”
Mark Mazower, who teaches history at Columbia University, in the Guardian: “First there was Francis Fukuyama’s The End of History. More recently, we had Malcolm Gladwell’s The Tipping Point and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge: for years, it seems, big ideas have been heading our way across the Atlantic. It is hard to think of many similarly catchy slogans that have gone the other way of late – Tony Giddens’ notion of “the third way” may be one.
Some people think that is a problem. They are worried that Britain has been failing to produce big ideas that policymakers can use. They want to convert academic ideas into policy relevance and shake up the bureaucrats. Phillip Blond, who recently wrote a controversial article in Chatham House’s magazine, is one of them. Francis Maude is another: he wants politicians to be able to appoint senior civil servants so that fresh thinking can enter Whitehall…
And are big ideas the kind of ideas worth having anyway? They age badly for one thing and quickly look shopworn. Moreover, it’s hard to think of many scholars whose best work has been directed explicitly towards such a goal. …The tendency in recent government policy here to demand demonstrable policy relevance or public “impact” from academics shows how far this mindset has spread. It may or may not produce some policy product. But what it will do is jeopardise British universities’ ability to do what they have done so well for so long: world-class research. These days both government and business demand value for money when they fund academia, and this makes it harder and more vital to insist that there are many ways to demonstrate the value of ideas, not just policy relevance.”
The Guardian: “Since 2010 David Cameron’s pet project has been tasked with finding ways to improve society’s behaviour – and now the ‘nudge unit’ is going into business by itself. But have its initiatives really worked?….
The idea behind the unit is simpler than you might believe. People don’t always act in their own interests – by filing their taxes late, for instance, overeating, or not paying fines until the bailiffs call. As a result, they don’t just harm themselves, they cost the state a lot of money. By looking closely at how they make their choices and then testing small changes in the way the choices are presented, the unit tries to nudge people into leading better lives, and save the rest of us a fortune. It is politics done like science, effectively – with Ben Goldacre’s approval – and, in many cases, it appears to work….”
See also: Jobseekers’ psychometric test ‘is a failure’ (US institute that devised questionnaire tells ‘nudge’ unit to stop using it as it failed to be scientifically validated)
“How many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.”
In an earlier post, we reviewed Cass Sunstein’s latest book on the need for government to simplify processes so as to be more effective and participatory. David Lieb, co-founder and CEO of Bump, recently expanded upon this call for simplicity in a blog post at TechCrunch, arguing that anyone trying to engage with the public “should first and foremost minimize the Cognitive Overhead of their products, even though it often comes at the cost of simplicity in other areas”
When explaining what Cognitive Overhead means, David Lieb uses the definition coined by Chicago web designer and engineer David Demaree: cognitive overhead describes “how many logical connections or jumps your brain has to make in order to understand or contextualize the thing you’re looking at.”
David Lieb says: “Minimizing cognitive overhead is imperative when designing for the mass market. Why? Because most people haven’t developed the pattern matching machinery in their brains to quickly convert what they see in your product (app design, messaging, what they heard from friends, etc.) into meaning and purpose.”
In many ways, the concept resonates with the so-called “Cognitive Load Theory” (CLT) which taps into educational psychology and has been used widely for the design of multimedia and other learning materials (to prevent over-load). CLT focuses on the best conditions that are aligned with human cognitive architecture (where short-term memory is limited in the number of elements it can contain simultaneously). John Sweller, the founder of CLT, and others have therefore focused on the role of acquiring schemata (mind maps) to learn.
So how can we provide for cognitive simplicity? According to Lieb, we need to:
- “Put the user “in the middle of your flow. Make them press an extra button, make them provide some inputs, let them be part of the service-providing, rather than a bystander to it.”;
- Give the user real-time feedback;
- Slow down provisioning. Studies have shown that intentionally slowing down results on travel search websites can actually increase perceived user value — people realize and appreciate that the service is doing a lot of work searching all the different travel options on their behalf.”
It seems imperative that anyone who wants to engage with the public (to tap into the “cognitive surplus” (Clay Shirky) of the crowd) must focus–when for instance, defining the problem that needs to be solved—on the cognitive overhead of their engagement platform and message.