Saturday, February 9, 2013

Nudge, nudge, but there's a limit in politics

Feb 08, 2013

By Andy Ho Senior Writer

MANY women may not know it but there is a housefly drawn at the right spot in some public urinals that men use. This offers males target practice, which lessens spillage.

The painted fly is an example of "nudging" people to make right decisions. This term of art comes from the 2008 bestseller, Nudge, by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard law professor Cass Sunstein.

The book described how neuroscience, social psychology and behavioural economics can help policymakers "influence people's behaviour ... to make their lives longer, healthier and better" while remaining free to do what they like.

Humans behave less than completely rationally. Instead, we are conditioned by environmental cues. To change behaviour, Nudge urged, the environment may be structured to influence people subtly to make certain choices that experts know are better for the individual and society.

That is, policymakers tweak the "choice architecture" so preferred choices become cognitively easier to perceive. It does not impose a particular outcome on anyone, Nudge argued, so no one's freedoms are infringed upon.

Smokers are free to smoke. But exposing them to gory images of lung cancer on cigarette boxes may nudge them into imagining the harrowing consequences of lighting up each time they do so.

Or, to fight obesity, make salad the default side-order to burgers rather than fries, which may still be obtained at no extra cost but you have to ask for them. Research shows most won't bother, so most will have the salad.

And since food choices must be arranged anyway - there is no avoiding "choice architecture" - why not do it intentionally to help people eat healthier?

Britain, in particular, has been nudging its people to conserve energy, stop smoking, and so on. In 2010, Professor Thaler was consulted in setting up a seven-person Behavioural Insight Team in the Prime Minister's Cabinet Office. The team scours behavioural research to craft nudges that help people make better choices.

Now 12-member strong, the team has been quietly helping "pretty much every government department", its director David Halpern claimed this week, to tweak their policies to get Britons into recycling, quitting smoking, eating healthier and so on.

It has even sold its nudging expertise to the New South Wales state government in Australia, although national newspaper The Australian called it a "toxic import (for) instead of democratic debate and argument, it opts for subliminal psychological techniques and manipulation".

The nudge approach as "libertarian paternalism" is still paternalistic in trying to get people to make choices they themselves may not have made, but which experts say are best for them. But why should people prefer the expert's choice? After all, experts may be prone to cognitive errors.

And when does a nudge become a shove?

The authors say this is a tricky issue, for nudges range from grisly graphics on cigarette boxes to a savings plan with automatic enrolment but no opt-out - like Singapore's Central Provident Fund. One man's nudge may be another's coercion.

So it is misleading to call this "libertarian paternalism" a Third Way between the libertarian demand for minimal government and maximal individual freedom on the right of the political spectrum, and paternalistic command-and-control interventionism on the left.

The nudge approach is limited and not really an alternative way of governance. Nudges may be of value when there are no parties with opposed interests, like McDonald's lines or public urinals.

But this approach won't get people to behave the way experts think is best on contested issues where there are opposed interests. So, the nudge approach would not succeed in getting Singaporeans to agree on immigration and population size or on whether the law criminalising gay sex, Section 377A, should be kept.

Nudge, the book, teaches how service providers ought to structure the choices they offer to end users. But it takes for granted the prior political decision to provide those services, which some other party must make.

For example, say Parliament approves a motion for a planned population of up to 6.9 million by 2030. Once it musters support for this, the Housing Board as "service provider" determines how it will structure the choices of flats it will offer the consumer-voter.

But the way Nudge frames the issue, the political concerns and social values that lead Parliament to its various decisions are conveniently passed over. In real life, though, these concerns and values are bitterly contested. Disagreements aren't about correcting for cognitive errors but about what political compromise and day-to-day trade-offs are available which then determine how a governance regime is structured.

It is only by ignoring such political contestation that the Nudge framework of governance can adopt a "choice architecture" to nudge people into certain behaviours. So while the nudge idea is rhetorically resonant, it is by no means a sensible way to govern.

At most, it may be useful at the margins, perhaps for some lifestyle considerations like a full bladder or tobacco, allowing for clever, inexpensive solutions like painted flies in urinals or grisly colour photos of cancers.

But the claim that choice architecture helps "pretty much every government department" is really an inflated one. Politics and government involve different ideas and much contestation over preferences, values and norms in a society. Ignoring them by assuming one particular course of action is preferable - and then designing policies to influence people into choosing it - is hardly the stuff of good government or good politics.

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