Nudge me will ya!

The health minister is empowering councils to “nudge” us into a healthier lifestyle

This phrase confirms that David Cameron and the “compassionate conservatives” are acting on their consultations with Prof. Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler about social policy reform.

For those of you who don’t recognise the names, Prof. Sunstein is currently the Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. Thaler is a behavioural economist most noted for his work with Daniel Kahneman and
Amos Tversky on the Nobel prize winning prospect theory.

Together they co-authored Nudge, a book about choice architecture, which is way of thinking about people and the choices they have, to improve the quality of decision making about “Health, Wealth, and Happiness”.

In essence nudge is about understanding that human beings are not “rational agents” (I.e. given all the information a person will always make the best possible decision) and that through a series of rules of thumb (heuristics), constraints and errors of thinking (cognitive errors) humans tend to behave less rationally. The book describes some of the common errors we make and shows how to encourage people to make better decisions. On the whole it is a fascinating book and well worth the read.

However, the idea that our behaviour is being subtly influenced, by the way choices are offered to us, by any governing party leaves me feeling a little cold.

I’m not intending to sound like a bleeding heart liberal. I can see a lot of benefit in designing a way to offer choice, while reducing the burden on the population to process and understand complex information, across multiple verticals.

I’m also aware that this happens anyway and I’d personally prefer someone, who’s informed, to be responsible for designing my choices then for it to happen adhoc with unknown consequences.

The reason my blood runs cold is simply that it’s the conservative party that’s doing it! This is not a statement on my political affiliation but is simply an extension of thought about choice architecture. If someone can design a way for me to make better choices by understanding my errors in thinking then surely my understanding of that persons motivations is as clouded by the same errors.

Think about it this way, I grew up under a conservative government. I remember the party being mired by the poll tax scandal, sleaze, individual self interest and rampant capitalism. They left power in 1997 with an extremely low poll rating and took 13 years to become a credible force in politics again.

It is quite possible that in the last 13 years the conservative party have changed. That they are the party of a fairer, equal society but for some reason I just can’t buy it. (Baring in mind, they are openly using an approach to encourage people to make better decisions (on who’s agenda?) which some could view as coercive and you can start to see my problem). Perhaps John Major was right and England is a “country of long shadows” and my cynicism is simply an instance of the Semmelweis effect, a “reflex-like rejection of new knowledge because it contradicts entrenched norms”, perhaps?

Ultimately though I applaud the government for being open about what they are doing, and why. If I were them though I wouldn’t be surprised if there were a backlash, as people misjudge their motivations.

Let’s hope Thaler at least taught them about some other errors in thinking, which might cast doubt on their (no-doubt) good intentions.