When is it rational to be nudged?

Five years ago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published a thoughtful little book called Nudge in which they outlined a broad program for improving the outcomes of human decisions. Drawing on the maturity of the field of behavioural economics, Thaler and Sunstein outlined the myriad ways in which small changes in the environment can affect the choices we make. In the intervening years, interest on the part of governments in developing such programs has grown ever stronger. In Great Britain, the Conservative government of David Cameron established the Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, with Richard Thaler as advisor. Cass Sunstein was appointed Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs under Barack Obama, where, among other tasks, he developed government-wide regulations that nudge people in numerous ways, although exactly what was done has always been a bit under the radar. Now comes news that the US government is developing its own Behavioral Insights Team, and there is a call  for people with appropriate skills to join.

Nudging is not without its critics. Those with libertarian sensibilities are predictably outraged, even if Thaler and Sunstein described the program as an exercise in libertarian paternalism.The primary concern is that nudging infringes upon autonomy, which brings it directly into the sight lines of neuroethics. The key issues were recently summarized in a short article in The New Scientist by Evan Selinger.

Fair minded individuals may debate the degree to which the infringement upon autonomy engendered by nudges is problematic, but Gidon Felsen, Noah Castelo and I decided to take a different tack.  First of all, we reframed the issue, calling it Decisional Enhancement rather than nudging (that our reframe is, in and of itself, a bit of a nudge did not escape our notice). More importantly, we have begun to explore the question of how the public view the infringement of autonomy that decisional enhancement programs provide. Essentially, we wanted to explore the degree to which people are willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes. The results of our adventures in experimental neuroethics can be viewed in our recently published paper in Judgement and Decision Making.  One key insight is this: when people need help achieving their objectives in life, they are not loathe to give up a bit of autonomy. It does not appear to be the case that people are enthusiastic about giving up autonomy just because their objectives are aligned with the decisional enhancement program. Rather, it is when their objectives align with the program and they recognize that they are struggling with achieving that objective that the endorsement is most evident.  To put it into terms developed by Harry Frankfurt, it seems that autonomy violations are most acceptable when people recognize that their decisions are more likely to follow their lusty first-order desires – to overeat, to spend money foolishly, etc. – than their sober life objectives, what Frankfurt called second-order desires.  Viewed in this light, perhaps it is entirely rational to give up a bit of autonomy to live as we wish.

Nudge symposium proceedings

The current issue of the European Journal of Risk Regulation has the proceedings of a symposium on nudging, and it contains a set of insightful papers. The introduction by the editor says it best.

The EJRR starts the new year by hosting a pioneering symposium devoted to one of the latest policy innovations that is currently experimented in the United Kingdom and the United States: the ubiquitous, yet controversial, Nudge. This idea originates from the homonymous, 2008 best-selling book published by the economist Richard Thaler and the legal scholar Cass Sunstein. By building upon the findings of behavioural research, they refute the classic economic assumption that “each of us thinks and chooses unfailingly well”1 and they advocate the need for public authorities to nudge people to make decisions that serve their own long-term interests without however removing their right to choose.

At a time in which governments are taking considerable interest in the use of nudging, we have asked some of the leading authors who have already contributed to the literature surrounding the regulatory innovations, generally referred as New Governance, to share their ideas on this appealing regulatory approach.

In his opening essay, Nudging Healthy Lifestyles, Adam Burgess provides a critical assessment of the introduction of behavioural, nudging approaches to correct lifestyle behaviours in the UK. His thought-provoking analysis triggered a lively debate that has been framed along the subsequent essays signed by On Amir and Orly Lobel, Evan Selinger and Kyle Powys White, Alberto Alemanno and Luc Bovens.

The article by Alberto Alemanno, Managing Editor of the European Journal of Risk Regulation is a fulsome account of the propriety of nudging in the case of tobacco control (recently highlighted by Roland on these pages); that nudging in this instance overcomes many of the objections that are raised in the other contributions to the symposium.

I also liked Selinger & White’s analysis of nudging in the context of Brad Allenby and Dan Sarewitz’s insight on the three levels by which we should view technological fixes (as articulated in their excellent book The Techno-Human Condition, which I have written about before). In particular, they point out the naiveté of only considering shop-floor arguments, a topic we will return to again.

Hat tip to Marleen Eijkholt for alerting me to this symposium.

Image credit: Transcapitalist

Graphic Warnings on Cigarettes: Nudge or Shove? A Neuro-Perspective

Although the topic of cigarette packaging regulation may not leap immediately to mind when one thinks “neuroethics,” this Bob Greene opinion piece over at CNN nonetheless touched off a stimulating discussion among some of us at the Core recently. The neuroethics connection, in fact, struck us as quite natural: our group has researched (and blogged about) the ethics of “nudging” frequently of late, and, as I worded it when I first emailed the article around, “certainly the images at issue here are a kind of behavioural nudge.” The question that we grappled with was whether the kind of nudge that the graphic warning labels provide is warranted in the case of cigarettes. And, indeed, that discussion called my original characterization into question. Do these labels truly constitute a nudge – a subtle biasing technique that makes a particular option more cognitively accessible than another while preserving the freedom to choose between them – or are they something more akin to a “shove?”

One of the least gruesome of the proposed images for cigarette packs.

As with any highly politicized issue, the question of whether cigarettes ought to be labeled with disturbing imagery is likely to be filleted into oblivion by pundits, bloggers, legal experts, economists, et cetera, et cetera. All I hope to do here, then, is sketch some ways in which the view from neuroethics – informed as it is by philosophy and the cognitive sciences – can shed some interesting and hopefully useful light on the question. Continue reading

Neuromarketing podcast on All in the Mind

This past week, Phil Harris of the University of Melbourne, Shane Moon, Managing Director of Inner Truth, and I participated in a conference held at the Royal Institution of Australia on the subject of neuromarketing – I joined the group in Melbourne via skype. The event was hosted by science journalist Natasha Mitchell, and portions of the discussion can be found in this week’s episode of All in the Mind.

Link to download podcast of “Buying desires: Neuromarketing or neurohype?” from All in the Mind

Further coverage of the event on Natasha Mitchell’s blog

21st century enlightenment

Another great video from RSA-Animate.  Matthew Taylor, Chief Executive of the Royal Society for the for the Encouragement of Arts, Manufactures and Commerce (RSA) explores the meaning of  21st century enlightenment. There are many worthy ideas here, and given the way understanding of the brain is highlighted, I was naturally smitten.  My favourite line: “21st century enlightenment calls for us to see past simplistic and inadequate ideas of freedom, of justice, and of progress.” [2nd place: "The moral and political critique of individualism now has an evidence base." ]

Watch, and feel free to note your favourite (or most reviled) line in the comments.