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.