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OPINION15 November 2016

BE bites: go on, nudge me – see if I like it?

Behavioural economics Finance Healthcare Opinion Public Sector UK

Crawford Hollingworth delves into the latest findings to explore whether people approve of the concept and act of nudging.

Ask yourself this – do you mind being nudged? That is, having your choices and decisions shaped and steered so you make better ones by subtly altering your physical surroundings or the communications directed toward you. Are you pro-nudging, ambivalent or anti-nudging?

The concept of ‘nudging’ has received considerable attention in recent years. It was brought into the limelight by the 2008 book Nudge written by economist Richard Thaler and lawyer Cass Sunstein.

Since its publication, many governments have started to use nudges as a policy tool. This has sparked heated discussions about whether it is ethically appropriate to steer people in certain directions – even if we maintain their freedom of choice by for instance, giving them the chance to opt-out. While academics, business people and politicians all have different viewpoints, no camp really knew if people object to or like being nudged – until recently.

Americans like ‘nudging for good’

Last year, Cass Sunstein polled Americans to see if they approved of particular nudges. These included:

  • automatic enrolment in retirement saving plans
  • mandatory graphic warnings on cigarette packets
  • automatically registering eligible citizens as voters
  • requiring grocery stores to put healthy foods in prominent locations.

Most Americans had no opinion about nudging in general. However, they paid close attention to the purpose and effect of a specific nudge: nudges seen as legitimate and important were widely accepted. For instance:

  • 80% approved of automatic enrolment in retirement savings plans
  • 74% approved of mandatory graphic warnings on cigarette packages.

In contrast, Americans rejected manipulative nudges that could conflict with people’s values. For example, 73% disapproved of a default which automatically donated $50 of someone’s tax return to the Red Cross unless they opted out. People expect the nudge to be well-intentioned and to help them make better decisions. It should not use people’s biases against them e.g. designing a default that leads people to incur a monetary loss if they fail to opt-out.

Most Europeans generally support nudging too

To see if these findings extend beyond the US, Lucia Reisch and Cass Sunstein conducted a similar survey in Europe. The results indicate that most Europeans support nudges, including the British and the French. However, levels of support are much lower in Denmark and Hungary (although it’s not yet clear why).

Political affiliations influence people’s acceptance of nudges

Sunstein has also investigated whether people’s political orientation influenced their opinion of nudging. Most nudges were supported by both Democrats (liberals) and Republicans (conservatives). Yet, opinions differed if nudges conflicted with partisan values. For example, only 28% of Democrats approved of an anti-abortion nudge whereas 70% of Republicans did.

Moreover, David Tannenbaum, Craig Fox and Todd Rogers showed that partisan affiliations influence whether people approve of nudges – known as ‘partisan nudge bias’. Their research has revealed that Republicans were more likely to accept nudges that came from a Republican government, but tended to dislike identical nudges implemented by Democrats. The opposite applied to Democrats.

Nudging may still work even when we know we are being nudged

So although we generally seem to like nudges, how might people respond if someone tells them that they are about to be nudged? To answer this question, George Loewenstein and his team tested the effect of warning people about being opted in to certain medical treatments. Participants in the study were asked to complete a hypothetical end-of-life care choice form.

  • First, the form asked them to indicate whether they would want medics to make every effort to prolong their life or maximise their comfort and reduce any pain.
  • Secondly, participants were asked to indicate their preference for particular medical treatments which can help prolong life such as feeding tube insertion, CPR or dialysis.

However, some participants saw versions of the form where they had been defaulted into choosing to prolong their life, and others saw forms where they had been defaulted into maximising comfort. Unlike typical nudge interventions however, participants were informed about the default and were free to accept or reject these pre-selected choices though – and opt-out.

Surprisingly, knowing about the nudge still did not eliminate the default effect. Just as people who set their watch five minutes fast to avoid being late find this works even though they know the real time, knowing our behaviour is being steered by a nudge, still seems to push us in the right direction. Although these findings may not extend to all nudges, it seems that telling someone they are being nudged may not decrease its effectiveness.

So back to the original question. Do we like being nudged? Well, yes…on the whole, we’re supportive of nudges, particularly if they are useful and add value in our lives. Only if they steer our choices and decisions in an unethical direction do we become a little tetchy. And they still work even when we know we are being nudged; it does not seem to diminish their effectiveness. 

Reference:

Loewenstein, G., Bryce, C., Hagmann, D., & Rajpal, S. ( 2015 ). Warning: You Are About to Be Nudged. Behavioral Science & Policy, 1( 1 ), 35-42.

Reisch, L., & Sunstein, C. ( 2016 ). Do Europeans Like Nudges? Judgment and Decision Making, Vol. 11, No. 4, July 2016, pp. 310–325

Sunstein, C. ( 2016 ). Do People Like Nudges? Administrative Law Review, Forthcoming

Tannenbaum D, Fox C, Rogers T. On the misplaced politics of behavioral policy interventions. Working paper. 2014.

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