Whither Nudge? The Debate Itself Offers Lessons on the Influence of Social Science

Blog by Tony Hockley: “Pursuing impact can be a disturbing balancing act between spin and substance. Underdo the spin whilst maintaining substance and the impact will likely be zero, but credibility is upheld. Overdo the spin and risk the substance being diluted by marketing and misappropriation. The story of Nudge offers insights into what can happen when research has an unpredictably large impact in the world of politics and policy.

Has Nudge overdone the spin, and how much is a one-word book title to blame if it has? It is certainly true that the usual academic balancing act of spin versus substance was tipped by a publisher’s suggestion of snappy title instead of the usual academic tongue-twister intelligible only to the initiated. Under the title Nudge the book found a receptive audience of policymakers looking to fix problems easily and on the cheap after the 2008 economic crash, and a public policy community eager to adopt exciting new terminology into their own areas of interest. ‘Behavioural Insights Teams’ quickly sprang up around the world, dubbed (very inaccurately) as “nudge units.” There was little discernible push-back against this high-level misappropriation of the term, the general excitement, and the loss of strict definition attached to the authors’ underlying concept for nudge policies of “libertarian paternalism.” In short, the authors had lost control of their own work. The book became a global bestseller. In 2021 it was updated and republished, in what was described as “the final edition.” Perhaps in recognition that the concept had stretched to the end of its logical road?…(More)”.