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Why (most) ‘Nudge’ thinking is (probably) wrong (at least on balance).

January 4, 2011

Talk of ‘Nudge’ and its application to social policy has been around for a while now. The most recent outing of note was the story at the beginning of December around Andrew Lansley’s endorsement of nudge approaches, where possible, in public health as an alternative to regulation (the latter often made synonymous with “nannying”).

Give or take some nuance, the theory of nudge is that subtle cues, clues and not least incentives can be used to modify people’s behaviour in ways which are at least as successful as top-down regulation or head-on rational argument. Marketers have long known that purchasing decisions have as much to do with emotions, contexts, group behaviour and hard wired instincts as they do with conscious calculated rational decisions. Marketing has sought to identify and exploit these drivers, and the nudge school of marketing has gone from strength to strength in recent times. You will, of course, get many different accounts of what ‘rational decision-making’ is anyway, depending on which philosophers and psychologists you ask – we are notoriously bad, for example, at differentiating between the probability of an unpleasant event and the degree of its unpleasantness when making what might otherwise be seen as conscious rational choices about risk.

Social policy makers, of a variety of schools, like nudging for several reasons. It has been suggested that it may be more effective and cost effective in some areas than ‘heavy duty’ regulation, policing, ‘push’ marketing or remediation. So nudge fits nicely with the hope that government really can meet its ends in more intelligent, elegant, less intrusive ways and, therefore, that these ways will have the currently inestimable merit of being cheaper.

But it is even more beloved of those who dislike governments ‘telling people what to do’ or ‘ordering people about’… and who are most likely to deploy the term “nanny state”. They are thinking of a bossy, if benevolent, kind of nanny.

This is where the misunderstanding starts to creep in and where it may, at the same time, betray the underlying and unexamined mindset of a majority of pro-nudgers.

“Not telling people what to do” is not the same thing as “Giving people an opportunity to make an informed choice”. This becomes clearer if you consider that nudging is not just about steering people towards a particular means of achieving an outcome, it is about steering people towards desiring that outcome… or even towards behaving as though they want it, even though they might be totally unaware of it (whatever it is). At the same time, the judge of the nudge shouldn’t just be about whether it ‘works’ or not – there are all sorts of things that would also work spectacularly… at around the time that civil liberties tended towards zero. Nudging needs to be judged by some other criterion.


There’s another post that I have been meaning to write for a long time – but I’ve never quite managed to make the required 2×2 matrix stand still for long enough. It comes from wanting to combine insights that I have been given by two different friends at two quite different times. Both divide people into two types – and there’s an irony in this as you will see in a moment.

The first insight came from a friend who had observed that there were two types of reaction to any social, political or economic “issue” once identified. The more common of the two is for people to identify ‘what ought to be done about it’ – their contribution is to identify, perhaps arguing about the proposition along the way, actions that should be taken by Other People [topic dear to my heart as you know – Other People]. A politically active minority will attempt to exercise power in order to have this solution put into practice. The rest will be satiated by having mumbled, grumbled and perhaps blogged, or written to the paper. The other, much less common, reaction is for people to look at their immediate surroundings and options and say – ‘what can I do about this?’. ‘How can I help?’ ‘How can I understand more?’. So let’s call these the ‘Something must be done’ tribe and the ‘What can I do?’ tribe. [I make no secret of the fact that my empathy with the latter is what lies behind my desire to root Big Society thinking first in local action, and only then in emergent national policy].

The second insight came from a friend who divided people, similarly on the basis of their response to political and social issues, into two schools of thought. One sort of person assumes that (here’s the paradox) there are two kinds of people – perhaps to be called the ‘aware’ and the ‘ignorant’. They will number themselves amongst the aware and, with more or less elitism and paternalism, they will consider what needs to be done for, or even to, those Other People [slightly different version of Other People here] for their own sake or, indeed, to stop them becoming a greater burden upon, or threat to, ‘people like Us’. The other type of person, again perhaps in something of a minority, resists this sorting of humanity into sheep and the goats, and regards everyone as fundamentally the same – the same in nature, in value and in potential as each other if not always, perhaps, in terms of circumstance and opportunity. Let’s call these the ‘Parents’ and the ‘Peers’.

In case you are thinking I’ve got this down to insanely clear cut distinctions, and have also already handed out Good Guy and Bad Guy badges, let me make a few quick but necessary qualifications. First – I am myself very prone to ‘Something must be done’ thinking and to adopting ‘Parent’ mode. These just happen to be things that I’ve become much more aware of over the last few years – not least thanks to having met all kinds of interesting and inspiring people – and they also happen to be things that I hope I have improved on over that time… now seeing myself as much more of a ‘What can I do?’ ‘Peer’ and, in some contrary way, taking more responsibility for my own wellbeing along the way.

I also believe that it is possible for someone to be a ‘Something must be done’x’Parent’ and still be acting on the very highest principles… of wishing good for every other person on the planet, and having a sense of duty, self-discipline or even self-sacrifice to go with it. It’s just not my world view – and therefore not something I would use to justify a course of action.

The matrix I keep trying to get my head around is the 2×2 combination of the two – since I’ve just snapped to the top left and bottom right cells as it were. So what do ‘How can I help?’x’Parent’ types look like. Is my real saviour hiding in ‘Something must be done’x’Peer’ thinking???? Hmmm… One day…


Armed with the fruits of that digression – let’s go back to nudging.

I think my point is that nudging is no less the ‘nannying’ just for being low profile or elegant. Nanny can be cunning – she may get the kids to behave by good use of [what Terry Pratchett would call] ‘headology’ rather than by sternly enforcing rigid rules. But it’s not a jot less ‘nannying’ all the time that the kids are just that (i.e. kids) and all the time that it is nanny who knows best what is good for them. If anything, nanny’s nudging is more sinister in direct proportion to how effortless, invisible and effective it is.

So, does that mean I’m prepared to discard any or all ‘positive’ impacts of the deployment of nudgery? What’s my alternative? The answer may lie in making it personal. I need to lose some weight. All other things being equal – I think I would. But all sorts of circumstances militate against it and, on balance, my behaviour would suggest that my explicit acceptance of the fact that I need to lose some weight isn’t as strong as I think – because it’s not overcoming those circumstances. Another reading is that I need ways to sustain, through the tricky times, the clear and present desire that I have to lose weight when I am at my most clear-headed and calculating.

For ‘ways to sustain’ read ‘help’ or indeed “Hellllp!!!” This could consist of leaving messages for my future self in the form of habits, visualisations, tricks and reminders. Or it could mean pre-arranging with my friends and family for them to collaborate in all this – removing some temptations, reinforcing some thoughts, releasing incentives that I have voluntarily put into their gift… and so on. I can also sensitise myself to tune in more to, and derive incentives from, all the social norms and rewards that exist in the society around me that reinforce my goal, and I can de-sensitise myself to all the opposites – which also exist out there.

All of which sounds an awful lot like nudging, at the particular time that I need it to work for me, and much more powerful than my simply repeating the words of some rationally derived resolution. The difference is that I consciously own the objective, and that I have entered into some kind of compact, some explicit and transparent agreement, to be nudged… as often and as effectively as you like. Contrast that with somebody else deciding that losing weight is a priority for me, and ‘tricking’ me into doing so without my agreement or possibly even my knowledge.

So the first thing that I would like from the state, if it thinks some of my priorities are “its” priorities, is the opportunity to enter into a compact to be nudged… in full acceptance that this is probably more effective and economical than said state having to spend a load of money on repairing me later when my weight makes me ill.

But – in my value system – the state is Us. The state isn’t something different, or special or superior… as an entity or as an executive collective of human beings. It’s just the result of a division of labour whereby some of us end up having to organise things (govern), whilst others make things or look after people or grow food… etc. So if there are people who currently find themselves in a Government of the day, or closely associated with it, or even a converging political class who happen to agree on how things ought to be (including the body mass index of members of the population) AND if those people want me to share that opinion and apply it to myself… I think they have only one option, and it’s NOT to nudge my subconscious into that place. They need to present me with a rational argument and, if that’s too weedy, then they need to set me an example. They need to manifest the behaviours that they want to see from me, and they need to make me admire them… not by manipulating my marketing-receptors, but by being authentic, inspirational and coherent. Now that’s what you call a nudge.

In short – the nudging classes should, instead, seek to lead by example. Whether it’s in health, or sustainability, business ethics or parenting, they should perhaps first be the change they want to see. Where have I heard that before?

Nowhere do I think this conclusion rings truer than in community participation and manifestation of The Big Society. Informing, making and overseeing the delivery of policies is not, of itself, an act of disinterested social investment or even sacrifice… it’s a day job. Get over it. Politicians and Ministers are not, thereby, exempt from the terms on which the rest of us are being asked to participate and invest in ‘society’ outside of our day jobs and our payday. [To be fair – there are MPs and Councillors out there who manifest that principle – and I would love to hear more about ways in which this can be detected and celebrated]. So – to mis-quote John Rambo – don’t nudge meeee! Go nudge yourself.

[And if they presume to seek to nudge me into being a more interested and active member of my own community… I’ll get really nasty! Oooh look! Buns!!]

5 Comments leave one →
  1. January 4, 2011 6:58 pm

    Hi Nick

    I love your comment about trying to think Peer rather than Parent. Will use this when I need to check in with myself.

    It reminds me of Eckhart Tolle’s description of the Ego and the Conscious Mind. The ego always sees itself as separate and seeks to be superior, whereas the conscious mind sees the infinite connectedness of everyone and everything and seeks to find the infinite potential in each human being.

    • njbdartford permalink*
      January 5, 2011 9:14 am

      Thanks Louise. I think there’s some Wittgenstein in there too – though I seem to be seeing Wittgenstein everywhere these days – because of the way the Peer approach externalises meaning and significance. The ultimate example is in language, where Wittgenstein would see meaning as being conferred, not just sustained, by an overlapping enterprise amongst many speakers… the analogy of the one long rope made up of many short but overlapping threads. So not all the speakers of a language are ‘on duty’ maintaining the meaning of every single word at every moment. I think that ‘nudging’ needs to be like that too – where we take it in turns to help sustain values and behaviours that each of us consciously entertains at some time (our *best* time?) but can’t keep up all the time. The alternative would be some objective ‘dictionary’ of righteousness that does it for us, and which is administered by a small number of specialists. [Blimey! I think I just arrived, from first principles, at the derivation of institutionalised religion… and then the isomorphism of this with paternalistic government. Time for a tea break then ;0) ]

  2. January 11, 2011 9:37 pm

    If you are trying to nudge the general public into contributing to society, you need to generate a “cascading” of community behaviours. You can only do this if there enough community activists in a particular neighbourhood who are contributing towards the community.

    This increases the level of “persuadibility” in that neighbourhood of others feeling motivating to participate. Likewise, if there are enough people in a neighbourhood who don’t work, then the level of “persuadibility” of new entrants to get a job will be much lower and therefore more difficult to get them into work.

    You could therefore have a “boom to bust” mechanic going on in particular communities, where public services and community groups have been able to support these catalysts and where that support is suddenly withdrawn and in parallel, many people become unemployed, the desire for communities to help each other suddenly fades away and the desire for people to find work also degrades. Social networks are both robust and fragile – and can fall apart if key catalysts and influencers lose the motivation to exhibit behaviours which influence others, or worse start behaving in self interested or damaging ways towards the community.

    Ultimately this crisis may lead us to look for support or even offer help to those around us. And this could provide the “bridging” social capital that is so missing – we may spend more time talking to teenagers on the street corner or the old lady in the park. But it could swing the other way and we may retreat to our families and friends – what’s called “bonding” social capital.

    As David Wilcox says “if u want people to act, support them. If u want people to talk, listen”

  3. February 4, 2011 4:47 pm

    I think I very much agree with you – am thoroughly fed up with nudege analysis; would prefer more respectful interactions

    all best


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