The Curious Politics of the ‘Nudge’

How do we really feel about policy “nudges”?

Earlier this month, President Obama signed an executive order directing federal agencies to collaborate with the White House’s new Social and Behavioral Sciences Team to use insights from behavioral science research to better serve the American people. For instance, studies show that people are more likely to save for retirement when they are automatically enrolled into a 401(k) retirement saving plan that they can opt out of than when they must actively opt in. The idea behind Mr. Obama’s initiative is that such soft-touch interventions, or “nudges,” can facilitate better decisions without resorting to heavier-handed strategies like mandates, taxes and bans.

The response to the executive order has been generally positive, but some conservatives have been critical, characterizing it as an instance of government overreach. (“President Obama Orders Behavioral Experiments on American Public” ran a headline on the website The Daily Caller.) However, it is worth noting that when a similar “behavioral insights team” was founded by the conservative government of the British prime minister, David Cameron, it met resistance from the political left. (“Brits’ Minds Will Be Controlled Without Us Knowing It” ran a headline in The Guardian.)

Is it possible that partisans from both ends of the political spectrum conflate their feelings about a general-purpose policymethod (such as nudges) with their feelings about a specific policy goal (or about those who endorse that goal)? We think so. In a series of recent experiments that we conducted with Todd Rogers of the Harvard Kennedy School, we found evidence for a “partisan nudge bias.”…

we also found that when behavioral policy tools were described without mention of a specific policy application or sponsor, the bias disappeared. In this “blind taste test,” liberals and conservatives were roughly equally accepting of the use of policy nudges.

This last finding is good news, because scientifically grounded, empirically validated behavioral innovations can help policy makers improve government initiatives for the benefit of all Americans, regardless of their political inclinations. “(More)