The Power of Nudges, for Good and Bad

Richard H. Thaler in the New York Times: “Nudges, small design changes that can markedly affect individual behavior, have been catching on. These techniques rely on insights from behavioral science, and when used ethically, they can be very helpful. But we need to be sure that they aren’t being employed to sway people to make bad decisions that they will later regret.

Whenever I’m asked to autograph a copy of “Nudge,” the book I wrote with Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor, I sign it, “Nudge for good.” Unfortunately, that is meant as a plea, not an expectation.

Three principles should guide the use of nudges:

■ All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

■ It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

■ There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged.
As far as I know, the government teams in Britain and the United States that have focused on nudging have followed these guidelines scrupulously. But the private sector is another matter. In this domain, I see much more troubling behavior.

For example, last spring I received an email telling me that the first prominent review of a new book of mine had appeared: It was in The Times of London. Eager to read the review, I clicked on a hyperlink, only to run into a pay wall. Still, I was tempted by an offer to take out a one-month trial subscription for the price of just £1. As both a consumer and producer of newspaper articles, I have no beef with pay walls. But before signing up, I read the fine print. As expected, I would have to provide credit card information and would be automatically enrolled as a subscriber when the trial period expired. The subscription rate would then be £26 (about $40) a month. That wasn’t a concern because I did not intend to become a paying subscriber. I just wanted to read that one article.

But the details turned me off. To cancel, I had to give 15 days’ notice, so the one-month trial offer actually was good for just two weeks. What’s more, I would have to call London, during British business hours, and not on a toll-free number. That was both annoying and worrying. As an absent-minded American professor, I figured there was a good chance I would end up subscribing for several months, and that reading the article would end up costing me at least £100….

These examples are not unusual. Many companies are nudging purely for their own profit and not in customers’ best interests. In a recent column in The New York Times, Robert Shiller called such behavior “phishing.” Mr. Shiller and George Akerlof, both Nobel-winning economists, have written a book on the subject, “Phishing for Phools.”

Some argue that phishing — or evil nudging — is more dangerous in government than in the private sector. The argument is that government is a monopoly with coercive power, while we have more choice in the private sector over which newspapers we read and which airlines we fly.

I think this distinction is overstated. In a democracy, if a government creates bad policies, it can be voted out of office. Competition in the private sector, however, can easily work to encourage phishing rather than stifle it.

One example is the mortgage industry in the early 2000s. Borrowers were encouraged to take out loans that they could not repay when real estate prices fell. Competition did not eliminate this practice, because it was hard for anyone to make money selling the advice “Don’t take that loan.”

As customers, we can help one another by resisting these come-ons. The more we turn down questionable offers like trip insurance and scrutinize “one month” trials, the less incentive companies will have to use such schemes. Conversely, if customers reward firms that act in our best interests, more such outfits will survive and flourish, and the options available to us will improve….(More)