Right kind of nudge

Sudhirendar Sharma | Updated on October 21, 2019

It improves social welfare and isn’t manipulative

The ‘nudge’, first as a creative hypothesis and later as a compulsive policy prescription, has come a long way since a housefly imprint in the loo pots at Amsterdam Schipol Airport dissuaded millions to avoid unwarranted spillage, by targeting the elusive fly instead. Partnering with fellow economist Richard Thaler, Cass R Sunstein took the little-pot experiment to dizzy heights in their pioneering work Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, published in 2008, which helped the subject of behavioural economics gain unparalleled political traction, and earned Thaler the Noble Prize for Economics in 2017. Applied to influence public behaviour, a nudge is any aspect of choice architecture that helps people opt for change without significant economic incentives. An alarm is a nudge, as is a warning or recommendation.

In recent years, several countries have been drawn to nudges to make progress on pressing social problems, as they do not cost a great deal. Countries including Australia, France, Canada, the UK and Germany have constituted behavioural science teams whose work has reportedly helped reduce poverty, improve public health, and clean the environment. Sunstein himself led one such team in the White House from 2009-2012. But the nudge as a process of social change has accumulated its share of criticism, charged with diminishing autonomy, threatening dignity, and violating liberties. Nudging has also been criticised as being a short-term politically-motivated initiative at the cost of long-term behavioural changes.

Trusting Nudges by Cass Sunstein and Lucia A Reisch (Routledge, $39.95) is the outcome of surveys conducted in 17 countries to understand why nudges are sometimes considered a form of manipulation, and are therefore rejected for being in pursuit of illegitimate goals. Across countries, however, there is consistency of acceptance for nudges designed to promote health, safety, and environmental protection. Cultural orientation and political lineage are known to play a major role in public response to nudges. For instance, only a small majority will accept the automatic change of women’s last names to that of their husband after marriage, whereas a call that requires chain restaurants to tag calorie labels on their products is sure to win support.

Findings from their surveys have helped Sunstein and Reisch conclude that nudges oscillate between comparative receptivity and comparative scepticism, driven by factors like age, cultural background, cognitive ability, political orientation, and trust in government. There is no one size fits all. Considered covert, manipulative, and based on excessive trust in government, misconception about nudges has led many to believe they are unlikely to solve big problems. But, the authors are convinced nudges are valid in maximising social welfare.

To overcome bias, a list of guiding principles to frame a ‘Bill of Rights for Nudging’ has been proposed. Trusting Nudges is a timely contribution to prudent policymaking, or governmental push — for toilets under Swacch Bharat Mission — will get counted as a nudge. One of the guiding principles of the Bill states “nudges must not manipulate people” in staking unsubstantiated claims. For those who have followed nudge hypothesis, this book is a welcome addition to the growing literature on a subject that captures central concerns in legitimising the role of nudges in civic life.

The reviewer is an independent writer, researcher and academic

Published on October 21, 2019

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