OPINION28 February 2012

Are ‘nudge’ policies pushing their luck?


The public welcomes and opposes government behaviour change interventions in roughly equal measure, according to a new report from Ipsos. But this isn’t the only contradiction inherent in ‘nudge’ politics. Brian Tarran reports.

‘Nudge’ politics has a problem, and its called “cognitive polyphasia”. The term describes the way individuals can exhibit contradictory modes of thinking about a subject – in this case, behaviour change interventions on the part of governments.

An Ipsos survey of nearly 19,000 people in 24 countries found, for example, that 36% of people agree with two contradictory statements: that government should change the law so that everyone has to enrol in a pension scheme, and that government should not get involved in what people choose to save for retirement.

“Whether they choose to ‘nudge’ or ‘shove’, it seems governments will only succeed in changing public behaviours if the public themselves are prepared to do so”

Retirement planning was one of four policy areas where Ipsos chose to explore attitudes to behaviour change interventions, the others being eating unhealthy foods, smoking and the environment.

Across the board, Ipsos found majorities in support of these types of government interventions, which have gained in popularity among politicians globally following the 2008 publication of the book Nudge, by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Yet an average of 50% of people surveyed also agreed that government should not get involved in people’s decisions in each policy area.

“A common interpretation of this ‘cognitive polyphasia’ is that we want government intervention to stop the bad behaviour of other people, but not necessarily our own,” observes David Halpern, the director of the behavioural insights team within the UK government’s Cabinet Office, writing in the foreword to the Acceptable Behaviour report. “But another interpretation is that people generally want to be able to make specific choices for themselves but are broadly amenable to government and trusted professionals making it more obvious and easier to choose the safest, healthiest or greenest option.”

Whatever the reason, it’s a perfect example of Daniel Kahnemann’s System 1 and System 2 thinking – the ‘fast’ and the ‘slow’ parts of the brain – at work. “We see this phenomenon a lot across our qualitative and quantitative studies,” write Ipsos’s Chris Branson, Bobby Duffy, Chris Perry and Dan Wellings, the authors of the report.

“It tends to be most prevalent, firstly, where we are looking at issues people don’t normally give a lot of active thought to, and secondly where there are emotional responses that may lead to difference conclusions than rational responses.” For instance, there are many people who are instinctively opposed to the idea of a ‘nanny state’, which legislates for the good of the people but at the expense of their own free will.

When to push, when to stop
The question then for governments – and indeed companies – looking to implement behaviour change programmes is to work out where the line of public acceptance lies. And it varies. As a general rule, Ipsos’s data suggests that the wealthier a nation is (as measured by GDP per capita adjusted for purchasing power parity) the less likely it is to favour government intervention (see chart below), yet conversely wealthier individuals are more supportive of interventions than those on lower incomes.

Strange as it may seem at first glance, this does make sense. As the authors note, the prevalence of ‘bad’ behaviours like smoking and eating unhealthy food are likely to be higher among lower income groups, so they are the ones for whom government interventions will have more costs attached. Similarly, Ipsos found broader support for behaviour change legislation aimed squarely at companies “as these are ostensibly ‘no cost’ options” for the public.

Cultural factors also play a role in public acceptance of behaviour change interventions, according to the data. Mapping support for outright bans against the Power Distance Index (PDI) – a measure of the acceptance within society of the idea that power is distributed unequally – shows that prohibitive legislation is viewed more favourably in countries with a high PDI, like India, Indonesia, China, Mexico and Russia (see chart below).

Yet public acceptance of a particular type of action doesn’t mean it will prove to be a success in practice, and here Ipsos gives the example of the ban on smoking in public spaces in China, which is widely overlooked. “There will be a number of explanations for why the ban hasn’t worked, but a large part is likely to be that social norms have not shifted in the way we’ve seen in other countries in the run-up to similar interventions,” according to the authors.

Whether they choose to ‘nudge’ or ‘shove’, it seems governments will only succeed in changing public behaviours if the public themselves are prepared to do so. This runs counter to the idea that you can bring about change quickly and unobtrusively by dint of a cleverly-designed intervention that plays to the quirks and mental short-cuts inherent in consumer decision-making.

If “preparedness” for behaviour change is linked to social norms then politicians should already know that these can take generations to change. Stamping-out drink driving and encouraging people to wear seatbelts are two UK government initiatives that spanned decades and involved hard-hitting communications campaigns, new legislation and tough punishments for those caught breaking the law. Hardly subtle, definitely more of a ‘shove’ but undeniably effective.

Baroness Julia Neuberger, who led the House of Lords inquiry into behaviour change last year told The Guardian: “Basically you need more than just nudge. Behavioural change interventions appear to work best when they’re part of a package of regulation and fiscal measures.

“All politicians love quick fixes [but] if you really want to change people’s behaviour it takes a very long time… you have to look at a 20- to 25-year span before you get a full change of behaviour.”

Here, Neuberger has hit on the cognitive polyphasia that afflicts politicians enamoured of ‘nudge’ theory. They think they have found an effective and low-cost way to correct societies ills, when they know full well that the biggest problems in society will take a lot of time and a lot of money to fix.


10 years ago

8-10 people die everyday in Mumbai as they trespass the railway tracks. We had no doubt that this was a problem where the government is expected to intervene. So with the support of Indian Railway, FinalMile Consulting developed 'nudges' to manage this problem. In high accident spots that these interventions were used the deaths deaths came down by 70%. Our experience is that 'nudges' do help to create immediate behaviour changes. Most effective 'Nudges' are developed not just with learning from Behavioural Economics alone but also learning from fields like Cognitive Neuroscience, Anthropology.

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10 years ago

Nudge supporters always like to claim this or that nudge really did work, but where's the proof the change came from the nudge? Even harsh penalties and laws don't necessarily have the impact they're believed to have, and when you rely on those all you need for it to be ineffective is for people to know there's essentially no chance they'll get caught. True changes in social attitudes are very different.

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