A Note on the Ethics of Nudges

Lambert here: See footnote 8. And the phrase “choice architecture” gives me the creeps.

By Christian Schubert, Visiting Professor for Economic and Business Ethics, University of Kassel. Originally published at VoxEU.

Nudges are modifications of people’s choice architecture that impact their behaviour but don’t change their incentives or coerce them. As a policy instrument, nudges have been shown to be effective in changing certain kinds of behaviours. This column explores the ethical issues that arise in employing such potentially manipulative policies. An evaluation programme is outlined that explores a potential policy’s impact on people’s wellbeing, autonomy, and integrity, along with its practical implications.

Evaluating the costs and benefits of standard government policies is straightforward, when we assume that citizens are rational and well-informed. Choices are guided by consumer and firm optimisation of clear-cut objective functions. Policy evaluation is based on how the policy changes the value of those objective functions. Assessing ‘nudges’ is a very different thing.

Nudges are modifications of people’s choice architecture (CA) that impact their behaviour without changing their material incentive structure or in any way coercing them (Thaler and Sunstein 2008).1 There is abundant evidence that they ‘work’ (Costa and Kahn 2010), but are they welfare improving?2

In fact, evaluating the costs and benefits of nudges entails some unavoidable ethical considerations. This column raises a number of issues that are widely neglected by both proponents and critics of nudging.3

I suggest four steps when it comes to evaluating a nudge policy.

  • First, let’s see whether the nudges in question increase people’s wellbeing.

Unfortunately, already here we get into deep water.

It’s unclear how we should think about wellbeing in the ‘behavioural world’ – which is, in fact, the real world, and the world in which nudges work. Remember, in the behavioural world, people not only have limited mental resources – meaning computational capacities, willpower and attention – but also context-dependent, inconsistent, and incomplete preferences. As a consequence, the standard neoclassical notion that defines wellbeing as the technical degree of satisfaction of given and consistent preferences cannot be applied.

A key point is that there is no received-wisdom alternative. Ideas have been floated – from measurable happiness to ‘only perfectly informed preferences should count’, all the way to Bob Sugden’s ‘opportunity’ criterion (probably the most elaborate alternative concept at the moment).4 The jury, however, is basically still out on how to think about wellbeing in a behavioural world.5

Let’s leave this core question aside for the moment and push on. As Chetty (2015) puts it, nudges may still be ‘pragmatically’ useful (in concert with more traditional regulation) in achieving specific policy goals that citizens have somehow agreed upon beforehand.

  • Second, we have to ask how nudges affect people’s autonomy.

Most critics agree that nudges compromise this key value by interfering with and manipulating people’s preference formation, and by addressing people’s lower instincts instead of reason. Individuals are then argued to lose ‘control’ over their own preferences (Hausman and Welch 2010).

Upon closer inspection, this argument looks a bit strange. Does autonomy really depend on the kind of hyper-rationality presupposed here? Aren’t we all subject to myriads of influences on a daily basis, most of which we’re even unaware of?6 Do we really lose our autonomy – and potentially our moral accountability with it – when acting thoughtlessly or in a way that is contrary to our sincerely held moral values (Buss 2012)? Suffice to say that whoever takes issue with nudges along these lines faces difficult conceptual and ethical questions (what is ‘manipulation’ anyway?).

  • The third step invites you to check whether it’s maybe not autonomy after all, but rather people’s integrity that’s at stake in nudging?

After all, nudges are supposed to work in a setting where people haven’t yet made up their mind (consider the notorious cafeteria case); that is, they lack complete preferences. It may be a good idea, then, to have a closer look at the problem of preference formation, which, for economists, is akin to the problem of identity or character formation.

The late James Buchanan had suggested that we should take seriously the notion that human beings face the task of creating their preferences and assume responsibility for them (Buchanan 1999). As Korsgaard (2009) shows, a necessary condition for succeeding in this ongoing process of ‘self-constitution’ is active choosing. Some kinds of nudges clearly support informed active choosing.7 Others rather seem to discourage people from engaging in active choice.

Put differently, some nudges may produce ‘excessive convenience’. Consider a world with widespread adoption of public nudging. There, I, the consumer, don’t need to worry about my retirement savings, nor about mustering the little self-control that I have to avoid the chocolate bars in the cafeteria, nor about being wary about the tricks of door-to-door salespersons. In all these cases, some choice architect, somewhere behind the scenes, subtly steers me into the ‘right’ direction – by changing defaults and frames, and by implementing cooling-off periods. In other words, I’m outsourcing my choices to some external body. 

In parts of the critical literature, this specific variant of moral hazard makes an appearance as the ‘infantilisation effect’ of nudging (Bovens 2009, White 2013). Note what’s at stake here –when preferences depend on people’s context, and policies can (partly) change that context, we face the problem that policies can impact preferences, which would present us with the awkward task to ponder over which kinds of preferences we want to promote (Hargreaves Heap 2013). The Buchanan-Korsgaard focus on identity formation may help us bypass this question (which is impossible to answer), without losing the ability to identify normative costs associated with nudging.8

  • Fourth and finally, we should think about what all this means in terms of practical policy implications.

Ideally, citizens should be informed about the normative costs involved in public nudging before voting on its implementation (Schubert 2014).

Consider integrity. People seem to face a trade-off between ‘excessive convenience’ on the one hand (which discourages active choosing, to the detriment of character formation), and ‘too little’ convenience on the other hand (leaving them overwhelmed with complex choices). This trade-off looks different for different kinds of goods. With primary goods that satisfy basic needs, we may conjecture that most people will favour delegating choices, at least partly, to trusted external bodies. Consider basic retirement savings. The demand to form idiosyncratic preferences on issues related to basic retirement savings seems rather limited. In contrast, preferences on morally charged issues such as whether to donate organs post mortem – a popular example of effective nudging (Smith et al 2013) – don’t easily generalise. In that latter case, integrity arguments speak against the use of nudges as a regulatory policy tool.9

Concluding Remarks

In most cases, nudges are likely to be implemented as complements to more traditional incentive-based tools. Research on the interplay between modifications of different parts of people’s choice architecture is still in its early stages. What’s striking, though, is that economists interested in deriving behavioural policy implications apparently require much more ethical input than their neoclassical predecessors were accustomed to. The behavioural economist may turn out to be the moral philosopher’s best friend.


Akerlof, G A and R J Shiller (2015) Phishing for phools: The economics of manipulation and deception, Princeton, Princeton University Press.

Berg, N (2014) “The consistency and ecological rationality approaches to normative bounded rationality”, Journal of Economic Methodology, 21: 375-395.

Bovens, L (2009) “The ethics of nudge”, in Preference change: Approaches from philosophy, economics and psychology, T Grüne-Yanoff and S O Hansson (eds), 207-220, Berlin, Springer.

Buchanan, J M (1999) “Natural and artifactual man”, in The logical foundations of constitutional liberty, Vol. I, J M Buchanan, 246-259, Indianapolis, Liberty Fund.

Buss, S (2012) “Autonomous action: Self-determination in the passive mode”, Ethics, 122. 647-691.

Costa, D L and M E Kahn (2010) “Energy conservation ‘nudges’ and environmentalist ideology: Evidence from a randomized residential electricity field experiment”, VoxEU.org, 19 May.

Hansen, P G (2015) “The definition of nudge and libertarian paternalism – does the hand fit the glove?”, European Journal of Risk Regulation, forthcoming.

Hargreaves Heap, S (2013) “What is the meaning of behavioural economics?”, Cambridge Journal of Economics,37: 985-1000.

Hausman, D M and B Welsh (2010) “Debate: To nudge or not to nudge?”, Journal of Political Philosophy, 18: 123-136.

Korsgaard, C M (2009) Self-constitution – Agency, identity, and integrity, Oxford, Oxford University Press.

Loewenstein, G, C Bryce, D Hagmann and S Rajpal (2014) “You are about to be nudged”, Working Paper, http.//ssrn.com/abstract=2417383.

Reiss, J (2013) Philosophy of economics: A contemporary introduction, London, Routledge.

Rothenberg, J (1962) “Consumers’ sovereignty revisited and the hospitability of freedom of choice”, American Economic Review, Papers & Proceedings, 52: 269-283.

Schubert, C (2014) “Evolutionary economics and the case for a constitutional libertarian paternalism”, Journal of Evolutionary Economics, 24: 1107-1113.

Schubert, C (2015a) “Opportunity and preference learning”, Economics and Philosophy, 31: 275-295.

Schubert, C (2015b) “On the ethics of public nudging: Autonomy and agency”, Working paper, http.//papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2672970.

Schubert, C (2016) “Green nudges: Do they work? Are they ethical?” Working Paper.

Smith, N C, D G Goldstein and E J Johnson (2013) Journal of Public Policy & Marketing 32: 159-172.

Sugden, R (2004) “The opportunity criterion, consumer sovereignty without the assumption of coherent preferences”, American Economic Review, 94: 1014-1033.

Sugden, R (2008) “Why incoherent preferences do not justify paternalism”, Constitutional Political Economy, 19: 226-248.

Sunstein, C R (2014a) Why nudge? The politics of libertarian paternalism, New Haven, Yale University Press.

Sunstein, C R (2014b) “Choosing not to choose”, Duke Law Journal, 64: 1-52.

Sunstein, C R (2015) “Nudging and choice architecture: Ethical considerations”, Working Paper (version 17 Jan 2015), http.//papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=2551264m, forthcoming, Yale Journal of Regulation.

Sunstein, C R  and L A Reisch (2013) “Green by default”, Kyklos, 66: 398-402.

Thaler, R H and C R Sunstein (2003) “Liberterian paternalism”, American Economic Review, Papers & Proceedings, 93: 175-179.

Thaler, R H and C R Sunstein (2008) Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, New Haven, Yale University Press.

White, M D (2013) The manipulation of choice: Ethics and libertarian paternalism, New York, Palgrave.


1 Nudges have been widely associated with the overarching normative programme of ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ (Thaler and Sunstein 2003), which restricts the set of legitimate CA modifications. They can however be applied in order to pursue non-paternalistic goals as well, such as protecting the environment (e.g. Sunstein and Reisch 2013, Schubert 2016). Nudges are supposed to be transparent, perhaps in the sense that an alert agent should be able to identify them and the channels through which they operate. That condition excludes, for instance, ‘subliminal advertising’ (Bovens 2009). Importantly, there is evidence that even perfectly transparent nudges can be highly effective (Loewenstein et al. 2014). As Sunstein (2014a: 13) puts it, the general idea is to develop “sensible, low-cost policies with close reference to how human beings actually think and behave”. Nudges have become very popular among practical policymakers, particularly in the US and the UK.

2 They manage to do so by either harnessing people’s cognitive biases or by responding to them (Hansen 2015).

3 See Schubert (2015b) for an elaboration.

4 See Sugden (2004, 2008) and Schubert (2015a) for a critical discussion.

5 This problem is closely related to the issue of conflicting understandings of rationality. While Thaler and Sunstein (2003, 2008) stick to the neoclassical variant (even elevating homo economicus to a normative role model!), others suggest the alternative notion of ‘ecological rationality’ (e.g., Berg 2014). 

6 See.Reiss (2013: 299). It’s an open question whether competitive markets foster deceptive private commercial nudging; e.g. Akerlof and Shiller (2015). 

7 Reminders and simplifications are obvious examples. To be sure, the whole nudge agenda raises awareness of the behavioural power of the choice architecture, which may promote informed choice overall. Note also that mandatory choice is a (non-nudge) element in the behavioural policymakers’ toolset (Sunstein 2014b).

8 Here’s a heretic thought I dare only express in a footnote – maybe it’s not people’s actual preferences that should be centre stage in normative economics, but rather their ongoing ability to cultivate them? Rothenberg (1962: 282-83) floated that idea long ago. 

9 Welfare arguments may be weighted against integrity concerns here, but as we have seen, no one really knows what ‘welfare’ stands for in our behavioural world, at least as far as the level of the individual is concerned.

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About Lambert Strether

Lambert Strether has been blogging, managing online communities, and doing system administration 24/7 since 2003, in Drupal and WordPress. Besides political economy and the political scene, he blogs about rhetoric, software engineering, permaculture, history, literature, local politics, international travel, food, and fixing stuff around the house. The nom de plume “Lambert Strether” comes from Henry James’s The Ambassadors: “Live all you can. It’s a mistake not to.” You can follow him on Twitter at @lambertstrether. http://www.correntewire.com


  1. Grubstaker

    I was recently having a conversation with a financial investor about suggestions for investments. I was presented a variety of index funds and portfolios. Apparently 60% of index funds include tobacco/cigarettes companies as a part of the portfolio mix. I found this very disturbing and asked why it was so hard to find an index fund portfolio without tobacco as a part of it. I learned that even some alleged socially sustainable portfolios such a PAX Ellevate Global Women’s Index Fund had a small percentage of tobacco companies included in the mix which surprised me. How would a person know this unless there was time to research the fund in detail which can take a great deal of time. This made me think of nudges and peoples’ CA. This made me curious about how many people really know what they are investing in when they choose a company 401K or 403B for example. To what extent do company investment plans support or harm society? (For example how many retirement plans offer, by default, index funds that do include tobacco companies in them?) I think investigating and researching both big companies and NGOs who claim to be doing “good” and then looking at the retirement portfolio options (nudges) and how they are distributed would make for an intriguing and engaging study? Also the question of what is “good” could also be explored. For example someone may view Bank of America as not an upstanding bank but see the value in how they provide loans for individuals and companies to succeed and provide benefit for society. Or someone may view weapons manufacturers as bad but like Boeing for their planes. How a person decides is interesting once asked the question: “Are you ok with investing in tobacco?” but this rarely happens. I feel people just quickly choose a retirement plan hurriedly with no real conversation about the overall implications and consequences of the choice and would prefer these nudges as they relate to the stages provided in the study. The market is really made up of all of us and how a person invests in a certain industry or idea can and does influence a shit in thinking and in the end can reflect a move toward positive change and nudges can help in this regard.

    1. Alejandro

      Oligopsonies and oligopolies are by definition, market “situations”…and “ freedom is just another word for nothing left to lose”…

  2. gordon

    Schubert’s ethical steps seem to me to be equally applicable to advertising. I’m still trying to work out the difference between “nudging” and using a picture of a pretty girl to sell shirts.

      1. gordon

        Maybe nudging is a part of advertising. Or maybe a part of marketing. I was struck by the applicability of the Schubert set of ethical “steps” to advertising. They seem totally relevant.

  3. PlutoniumKun

    I’ve struggled to get my brain around the concept of ‘nudges’ as it seems to me that this is what public policy makers have always done – for example, almost all transport planning is connected with providing subtle ‘nudges’ to users to adjust their journeys and their behaviour in order to achieve more efficient and less polluting outcomes. When I first read about nudges it seemed to me yet another attempt by the economics profession to ‘rebrand’ old ideas. Advertisers of course have been investigating the psychology of nudges for years (my favourite example being the discovery by junk food outlets that people order more junk food if there is a salad in their sight-line when they make the order).

    It does seem to me that the ‘ethics’ of public sector nudging is probably a non-issue, simply because any resources the public sector puts into it will always be overwhelmed with the barrage of nudges we get from the consumer industry. At best, its a slight counter-weight to what happens anyway.

  4. makedoanmend

    Ah. The auld days. Well I remember the insults thrown at the commies in days of yore. They were manipulative fiends that brain washed their populations.

    Marx really just another form of Marks and Sparks?

    We live in more enlightened times. We are to be given nudges. Just like hugs. Themed and trade-marked. Branding to brand the peoples.

    The market place, brands and political policy all gyrating into the new and improved natural order. Assimilative. Indistinguisable. Architecture without architects. Society without social.

  5. DakotabornKansan

    In the men’s room a little nudge goes a long way.

    Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport urinal flies started a revolution.

    However, giving men something to aim at is not a new idea. Victorian-era English decorated their urinals with small bees. An expert on the use of toilets through the ages at Thomas Crapper, which manufactures period sanitary ware, explains:

    “The bee was put on as an unusually vulgar Victorian joke. The Latin for bee is apis. Victorian gentlemen would have been schooled in Latin and would have got this joke, which would be lost on us now. It’s quite rare for any humour to be applied to sanitary manufacturing, so I rather like this.”

    A honey bee is any bee that is a member of the genus Apis. That’s quite close to “a piss”, hence the bees in the urinals.

    A product director at American Standard, which supplies fly-engraved urinals to New York’s JFK, explained the reason for the fly:

    ‘If it’s something that you consciously don’t like, you’re more likely to pee on it. If they had put a pretty butterfly or ladybug there, men might not aim directly at it. On the other hand, if you used an ugly-looking spider or a cockroach, people might be afraid of it and not even stand there. A fly seems to be a compromise: something that is universally disliked, but that doesn’t elicit fear and make people not want to stand there.”


  6. craazyman

    Whenever I think I’ll be exposed to a nudge environment, I wear body padding with a helmet and ski goggles as a safety precaution. You may look like a football player who got lost, but that’s part of your choice architecture!

    Whoa Lambert, I’m glad to hear it wasn’t you using the phrase “choice architecture”. At first I thought you did before I clicked through to the post. Wow. That was a close brush with astonishment.

  7. Steve H.

    – The third step invites you to check whether it’s maybe not autonomy after all, but rather people’s integrity that’s at stake in nudging?

    Ooooh! Implicitly brings into question the integrity of the entity doing the nudging, cui bone and whatnot.

    This intersects with the notion of a tax on time. As we’ve only got so much decision-making juice, being conscious of the nudges demands self-insertion of will-sucking probisci.

    Sort of like ACA, should’ve presented so many options that it would leave the populace a shambling obescient gmo soy-swilling fleshmound. Stupid oligoputschists monopolized it to Option-A-exclusive, so they had to turn the front end into a series of dead-ends and loops to keep the subjects scurrying. (I’m not buying into this whole ‘incompetence’ story.)

    In practical terms, who the hell are you to tell me I have to go look for my chocolate. You’re standing between me and my medium-chain fatty acids.

    1. diptherio

      …brings into question the integrity of the entity doing the nudging…

      ding, ding, ding!

      Only, in economics you’re not allowed to question the integrity of economic policy makers and experts–they are, by definition, pure platonic entities concerned only with the betterment of humankind (unless they happen to be a socialist-commie-pinko, in which case we have Public Choice Theory).

      1. SomeCallMeTim

        And even after acknowledging experts’ biases / non-objective nudges, we often still go along after a wink and a nod, as with advertising.

  8. Alejandro

    Sophists have known for a very long time that the logos (“cognitive bias”, rationality etc.)can and does play a secondary role to the pathos (appeal to emotions, empathy etc.). They’re well aware that the “case”, “sale”etc. is postured and made in the realm of the pathos, and the logos is for “closing”. They’ve also known that the ethos (credentials, credibility etc.) can be embellished with nobel prizes, phd’s etc, and more recently by unchallenged repetition of self-proclaimed “expertise”…

    IMHO, Hannah Arendts observation that the “purpose of totalitarian education is not to instill conviction but to destroy any ability to develop it”, was incisive then and relevant still…it would seem much more difficult to “nudge” conviction than push the lack of…

    P.S.: “Choice Architecture “ is almost as creepy as “common core”, which seems like an Orwellian play on the idea of equality…not that ‘we’ should question the motives of the “richest man in the world “ to fight inequality or his ability to understand it.

  9. diptherio

    I would never, EVER, trust someone who would seriously ask this question:

    what is ‘manipulation’ anyway?

    The underlying assumption is that the PTB, the management, our “social betters” or whathaveyou, are smarter than we are and, moreover, actually care about our well-being more than we ourselves do. The nudgers, of course, will only nudge people in ways that are beneficial, personally and/or socially, to the people themselves. The nudgers not only know what is best, they are also perfectly altruistic! It’s not really contemplated that the nudgers might actually have something other than society’s best interests at heart when they are deciding how and where to nudge.

    The main problem with this article, and this type of thinking in general, is that it assumes that nudgers (policy makers) are necessarily better informed than the general populace and that they serve the public interest, not the interests of political donors, for instance. Given what we know about how our national Government behaves in practice, and whose interests it actually serves (thanks to Gilens and Page) there is ZERO evidence that that assumption is a valid one. Critical thinking fail.

  10. juneau

    Manipulation indeed. Little nudges can be used to get people to do things they don’t want to do and can grind them into dust.

    “A Tiger defends the tips of his whiskers as fiercely as he defends his throat”

    Beware those who ask you to compromise “just a little”.

  11. ambrit

    Boy howdy! That Note 8 suggests a real “1984” mindset, doesn’t it.
    “Big Advertiser is watching!”
    I’ve just woken up, but this post hits somewhere between Dreamland and Hungry Hominid. Both states of consciousness derive from Existential Imperatives. Dreamland is essential for peoples assimilation of and normalization of daily experiences. The Hungry Hominid demands food, now! Everything else becomes relegated to secondary status, absent a greater life threatening stimulus.
    I’m of two minds about “choice architecture.” The phrase seems to deny agency to the individual. The ‘architecture’ of something defines its’ boundaries. Step off of a balcony, the ‘architecture’ of a building, and one falls. Here, ‘architecture’ is not the physical layout, but a description of same. As such, ‘architecture’ is a manipulable symbol. As the notorious Note 8 suggests, this manipulation can be directed by outside forces. The individual is demoted to “object” status. Free Will is denied.
    As yesterdays’ ‘Pseudo Beard’ controversy demonstrated, the question of how the ‘architecture’ of the general perception of reality is defined is still a powerful and dangerous point of contention. That example demonstrated how ‘nudges’ quickly escalate into ‘bashes.’
    Time to feed my Hungry Hominid.

      1. ambrit

        Chicken or egg question that.
        I’ve observed many social interactions where the visible markers of an individuals ‘status’ define how others relate to them. “Power Ties” comes to mind. “Smart” phones is generally another example. What is the ‘worth’ of continuous data accessibility when that, in and of itself, promotes the alienation of the individual from the commonality of human beings?

    1. TheCatSaid

      I understood Note 8 differently.

      Cultivating the ability to choose, decide, evaluate, and supporting the ability to ask for what we want & need to know in order to make empowered choices–that’s the essence of evolution, is it not?

      For example, in most school environments nowadays one is not encouraged to think freely and openly or to ask for additional information that might not serve the testing curriculum or the local political/religious ethos. Children nowadays grow up without that faculty of expanded asking/choosing having been encouraged. Advertising and political messaging reduces to our ability or likelihood of asking, as by definition these techniques create narrow frames of possibilities which we are encouraged to accept as givens or the limits within which we are expected to stay.

      1. ambrit

        I generally view such issues from a cynical point of view. I had interpreted the Note 8 as promoting the curtailment of choice. A bias of my own.
        Likewise, I can see evolution working equally well with unempowered choices predominating. Strictly speaking, evolution is a value free process. Humans ‘nudge’ and ‘bash’ evolution to guide it in some desired direction. The ‘values’ informing those ‘nudges’ and ‘bashes’ are the crux of the matter. If, on the one hand, we here can assert that there is no such thing as a “Free Market,” we must also admit the possibility that there is no such thing as a “Correct Moral Imperative.”
        I fully concur with your comment about Education. We home schooled all three of our children because of our convictions that all children deserved a more “Liberal” education. The basic responsibility for the type of education a child receives rests with the parents. This requires much more work by the parents. We resolved this issue by becoming a one income household. Others we encountered in our home schooling experience chose to rely on communities of like minded families to spread the burden. Most of these groups were religiously oriented. Fundamentalist Protestant Christians predominated. Also visible were Catholic Christians, Black Muslims, and some Counterculture Eastern Mystics.

        1. TheCatSaid

          I see. I was using “evolution” in a different way. I did not have in mind a Darwinian, “value-free” process of natural selection, but rather the ongoing personal development of personal values and how we explore and refine that, through life and beyond.

          Congrats on your implementation of home schooling for your family. Conscious choices in action.

          1. ambrit

            Ah. I see now.
            There is a faction of developmental science that perceives humans as ‘hard wired’ to certain stimulus response patterns. Humans’ big breakthrough was the ability to modify that reptilian brain programming consciously. Culture was the result. The two viewpoints can be reconciled. The process is at the root of the Nature versus Nurture debate.
            No wonder many Existentialists proclaim that “The Struggle Is All.”
            Your use of ‘cultivating’ as the verb in your first sentence says you have it right. With the ascendency of the “Individualist” formulation in our culture, the responsibility of the parents to properly nurture and cultivate, with all that growth oriented word implies, has been diminished and somewhat demonized. The habitués of the Comments Section who have children will probably agree on how much hard work raising children to be proper self reliant adults is.
            Be well.

  12. TheCatSaid

    Peter Emerson’s work (deBorda insitute, openDemocracy) on different choice methods is valuable (e.g. to choose policies, for referenda, elections, etc.). His books and other writings discuss various methodologies, and the benefits and disadvantages to ways that best reflect people’s will. I have found methods of ranked-choice to be particularly practical and effective. An important aspect Emerson highlights, is that the people (or an appropriately representative body) must be the ones to come up with the list of choice options.

    I could say more but it would be more suited to a full blog post than a comment.

    I think the topic is an important one. Our US style of “democracy” (even ignoring the impact of political donations) of yes/no voting styles–no ranking–is the least democratic of all voting options. I was never exposed to the existence of other options in all my education. I only found out more when visiting a friend in a small rural VA town where the community had decided to try using a different methodology (Condorcet) to determine community priorities to be used as a basis for future local governance decisions.

  13. Mogden

    There is no need for any nudging. Since progressives are axiomatically in favor of progress (it’s right there in the name), the progressive agenda will be mandated for all.

    1. ambrit

      “Progress Is Mandatory.”
      Sounds like the title of one of those horrendous business seminars Middle Management is required to attend so as to increase ‘efficiency’ and the companies ‘bottom line.’
      Instead of breaking out of the ‘box,’ just build a bigger ‘box.’ Nothing changes, which suits the status quo crowd perfectly.

  14. JEHR

    IMHO, the words used, i.e., “nudge,” and “choice architecture,” are at best used for obfuscation. Why not be precise and use manipulate, change, alter, affect or the many other words that mean something in themselves. When I “nudge,” I use my elbow or hand to touch someone and architecture is not usually used to describe options from which to choose. The article is a good example of why economics is not “scientific.”

  15. craazyman

    is the reader supposed to know what a “nudge’ is?

    I’ll admit I have no idea. There. I said it. I don’t know what a “nudge” is. If that makes me appear foolish or naïve, like some country hayseed wandering the sophisticated streets of New Yawk City with a gape-mouthed vacant stare, incredulous at all the tall buildings, getting fleeced by cab drivers, street vendors, souvenir shops, bankers, brokers, escort services, massage parlors, Times Square theme restaurants, pigeons, seagulls and rats. Oh well. “The road of excess leads to the palace of wisdom” -Wm Blake

    So WTF is a nudge? And why should anybody care? Why on earth would anybody write an academic paper about a nudge? It seems like a waste of time. Why do that when you can watch music videos on youtube? it’s not obvious to me.

    1. TheCatSaid

      The author implies a spectrum ranging from no exteternal advice or input, to variou kinds/degrees of “nudge” which might or might not be “helpful” in a person making a choice (and “helpful” according to whose criteria is hugely important but not necessarily easy to define or discern) to full-blown manipulation or coersion.

      For example–and this article might have benefited by a few examples, this is just my best stab at it–consider the presence of the “Donate” button on the website. It’s very presence is a kind of nudge, to the extent that there is already text inviting contributions. The button makes it easier to take a certain action (the “Choice Architecture”). Depending on the size, shape, color, placement, inclusion of subconscious messaging, the Donate button could be interpreted as a benign or helpful “nudge” that benefits the site, site-owner, and readers who desire to financially contribute to the site for their own reasons, or if it were designed in certain ways it could cross a hazy border into being offensively manipulative (I.e., creating circumstances designed to limit our responses in a specified manner).

      On the Donate page, if there are options such as giving weekly or monthly, or a few suggestions of specific amounts, provision of specified options is also part of the Choice Architecture. Same for providing a range of different ways to pay. These all make it easier to donate (a “nudge”), in this case hopefully without being manipulatve by using subliminal messaging or coercive by using threats.

      1. craazyman

        thanks. well, hmmmm. That would be consistent with what I construe to be the context of the post.

        I wonder if a doorknob is a nudge. if it wasn’t there it would be harder to open a door. You might stay where you are!

        Maybe wind is a nudge. Probably not, because it blows all over every direction. But maybe it’s a nudge for kite flying or sailing?

        The sun could be a nudge. If you sit inside and look out a window you might think “It’s a nice day, let me go for a walk.” That sounds manipulative.

        maybe the moon is a nudge. would Shakespeare have written in the Merchant of Venice “How sweet the moonlight sleeps upon this bank! Here will we sit and let the sounds of music creep in our ears. Soft stillness and the night become the touches of sweet harmony.” If there was no moon he might have written something about the wind, another nudge, or maybe the stars. Does one count them one by one, each a nudge, or are they all one nudge, a singular phenomenon, from horizon too horizon.

        Everything is a nudge. Even this keyboard is a nudge, enabling as it does the nonsense I type. It sounds complicated! :-)

    2. SomeCallMeTim

      On behalf of an unknown number of cowardly lurkers / intellectual hayseeds, thanks for asking!

  16. optimader

    Nudges are modifications of people’s choice architecture that impact their behaviour but don’t change their incentives or coerce them
    I don’t buy into this premise of unchanged incentive or coercion . A body at rest will stay at rest until acted on by an outside force applies to human behavior as well as objects in Nature. The outside force = an incentive. People optimize based on perceived advantage. No advantage why “modify”?

    Evaluating the costs and benefits of standard government policies is straightforward, when we assume that citizens are rational and well-informed

    Assuming citizens are rational and well informed are fundementally bad assumptions (re; Yves Smith’s lament about Manhattanites queuing up in grocery stores due a snowstorm prediction).

    Much safer assumption is that people behave irrationally, all you need to do is step out into public and observe. (file under: Chicago Gen Whatever fashion trend of going out in freezing winter weather in gymshorts to be seen)

  17. JD

    Would the nudgee agree to being nudged if they were made aware of it, or agree it with it after the fact once told? If not, then it is immoral to do it. If there is heterogeneity of preferences about being nudged, it is still immoral, although if sufficiently large percentages of people prefer it to not, the societal benefits might possibly outweigh the moral costs.

    That’s the thing about liberal democracy — the user chooses. If I want to be unnudged, and you think I would be better off nudged, you may be right, but it is definitely a violation to overrule my self-judgment, even for my own sake. Of course, you can always over-rule me in a democracy (since the minority is often forced to do things they don’t like), but that just puts nudging in the same category as any other moral imposition. It’s still anti-liberal, and worse than many other coercions for being deceptive.

  18. Synoia

    Bit of an assumption, this:

    when we assume that citizens are rational and well-informed

    Got any evidence this assumption is true? Any studies from anywhere on the planet? Ever? Any Civilization where this was true?

    That we are discussing “Nudges” is a complete rejection of this assumption, because a completely rational and fully informed citizen (hollow laughter) would probably be immune to “Nudges”.

  19. makedoanmend

    Nudge – definition

    1. giving the invisible hand a helping hand
    2. manipulate for the manipulator’s benefit

  20. PIGL

    So if nudges don’t change incentives, how are we to see them? The only I can think of is that they would encourage people to add or subtract terms from their objective function. Is that something like what is meant?

  21. Michael_emmett

    To respond to the criticisms of Nudge, I think it’s important to consider what exists if “Nudges” don’t exist. Every user/consumer has her/his own preconceptions, habits, resistance to change, unique access to information when interacting with products and services. Designers can ignore this or they can design in a way that recognises the impact these have on our perceptions of the value of things. Much of the content of Thaler & Sunstein’s book is simply the basics of product and service design — but applied to policy. They promote the idea of thinking carefully about the default behaviours, trying to provide information access so people can be informed before their choices, enabling them to easily back out of and switch between choices, etc. Nudge simply applies some basic understanding of how people behave, rooted in behavioural economics, to design. This is a positive, albeit an incomplete, step.

    We should recognise, even without a “Nudge” approach, EVERYTHING is designed with implicit or explicit goals of those who are designing. Some better, some worse than others. Some designed explicitly, others designed haphazardly. What the best designers do is to make sure ALL stakeholders are involved in the design — especially the final customers/users. This focus on users is called User-centered Design and is a foundation of the Design Thinking movement (see recent HBR issue devoted to Design Thinking here: https://hbr.org/2015/09/design-thinking-comes-of-age).

    I think that our skepticism shouldn’t be towards Nudge per se, but towards the conception of the original policy, product or service. Is it really solving a problem? Can users/consumers map their problems to the solution being offered? Does the product/service properly represent the problem? In many cases, the choice architecture is almost certainly defined to maximise the value for the owners or shareholders or product team rather than the users/consumers. This is a problem not of Nudges but of the distorted values of those who conceive of and design those products and services.

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