Yves here. I imagine that many readers will be bothered by this article, since it reveals the degree to which officials and corporate executives see the public as lab rats who just need to be better manipulated with the right nudges so as to produce the right outcomes….as opposed to taking more basic actions, like paying higher wages or producing better products or policies.
This article only barely and indirectly acknowledges how changing, confused, contradictory and downright insulting messaging undermined the credibility of official guidance. Only occasionally can that be excused by scientists and medical experts getting a better understanding of Covid transmission. But even then, the failure was in not course correcting and giving clear explanations as to why. Recall how the public was first discouraged from using masks and not told that the reason was to preserve supplies for medical professionals. Why not instead encourage large-scale at-home mask production? How about the later, repeated Biden Administration demonization of masks, first with its May 2021 depiction of masklessness as a reward for the virtuous vaccinated, and more recently, the CDC’s Rochelle Walensky appallingly depicted wearing a mask as a scarlet letter, a warning to the community that the wearer has committed a mortal sin.
And then we have Lambert’s favorite Covid cause, aerosols and ventilation. Why even now are simple expedients like Corsi-Rosenthal boxes not in widespread use? Well, in part because we are over Covid by edict. Too bad the virus doesn’t respond to nudges like that.
By Bryony Lau is a freelance writer and researcher from Canada. Originally published at Undark
In the early 1990s, the renovations manager at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport decided to decorate each bathroom urinal with a realistic image of a fly, placed just above the drain. For decades, urinal designers had sought a way to curb the unpleasant spillage around urinals, and it turned out that by giving men something to aim at — in this case, a humble insect — spillage dramatically reduced.
This airport innovation went on to become one of the most well-known examples of a nudge: a subtle prompt that can alter human behavior. The formal concept of nudging was first popularized by economist Richard H. Thaler and legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, who co-authored the best-selling 2008 book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.” The book defines a nudge as something that “alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” The authors framed nudging as a bipartisan technocratic fix that could solve tricky policy problems while preserving individual freedom. Governments didn’t need to tell people what to do; they needed to nudge them.
Following the book’s publication, nudges were embraced by both the U.S. and U.K. governments, and Thaler went on to win the Nobel Prize in economics. But two years after Covid-19 was first detected in Wuhan, China, nudges have lost some of their luster. To curb the spread of the novel coronavirus, governments and businesses have resorted to harsher measures, such as lockdowns and vaccine mandates, which nudges were purported to help policymakers avoid. For skeptics, a reassessment of nudges was overdue. We shouldn’t “fool ourselves into thinking that nudges are going to magically fix our larger systemic issues,” said Neil Lewis, Jr., a behavioral scientist and assistant professor at Cornell University. “They’re not.”
Nudging draws on insights from psychology, primarily the work of Daniel Kahneman, who won the Nobel Prize in economics in 2002, and Amos Tversky. These two Israeli psychologists pioneered the study of mental shortcuts that humans rely on to make decisions, known as heuristics. They presented initial findings in a 1974 paper, “Judgment under Uncertainty: Heuristics and Biases.” Their work had clear implications for economics, which assumes that people make rational decisions in pursuit of their interests. Kahneman and Tversky showed that that isn’t how the human mind usually works. Beginning in the late 1970s, Thaler partnered with Kahneman and Tversky to apply their findings to his field, creating behavioral economics.
In “Nudge,” Sunstein and Thaler brought behavioral science to the masses, with intuitive and simple examples, such as placing carrot sticks at eye level in school cafeterias to encourage healthier eating. Governments quickly caught on. Sunstein went to Washington, D.C., to work for the White House in 2009. Six years later, then-President Barack Obama issued an executive order to encourage the use of behavioral science in federal policymaking. In 2010, the U.K. Prime Minister set up the Behavioral Insights Team within the government’s Cabinet Office; the team was spun off as a private company in 2014 and now has offices around the world. Globally, there are now more than 200 teams, or nudge units, that specialize in applying behavioral science to everyday life.
Nudge units had important successes. In the U.K., the Behavioral Insights Team sent letters to clinics whose family doctors were overprescribing antibiotics. The effort yielded a 3 percent decrease in prescriptions. Another initiative demonstrated the power of tweaking a message: Taxpayers who paid their income tax late received letters telling them they were in a minority, as nine out of 10 people pay on time. That gentle admonition appears to have resulted in an additional 120,000 people paying about $6.5 million into U.K. government coffers. And behavioral science notched another win when governments and companies made enrollment in retirement savings plans a default option, helping people save more.
But as with any trend, there are skeptics. Some commentators decrynudges as government overreach or as an infringement on individual autonomy. But there are also people who say the opposite: that nudges result in governments’ not doing enough. In 2011, the U.K. House of Lords issued a report that questioned why nudges were being favored over more traditional policy tools, like regulation. In theory, behavioral science doesn’t skew left or right, but in the hands of politicians dubious of “big government” nudges can become a way to sidestep more muscular interventions.
Behavioral science had a rough start during the pandemic. When Boris Johnson decided not to impose a U.K. lockdown in March 2020, rumors swirled that the head of the Behavioral Insights Team, David Halpern, was advising against stricter measures. Hundreds of behavioral scientists then signed an open letter demanding the government explain the evidence supporting its decision. A subsequent inquiry by the Parliament found that senior officials had opted initially for softer measures assuming, incorrectly, that the public wouldn’t comply with a lockdown.
The pandemic revived a debate that has swirled around behavioral science for the past decade: What can nudges achieve? And what can they not?
As Covid-19 infections grew exponentially in 2020, behavioral scientists wanted to help. Nudges presented a possible route to controlling the virus, particularly in the absence of vaccines and evidence-based treatments, said Jay Van Bavel, an associate professor of psychology at New York University. That April, Van Bavel and 41 other researchers — among them, Sunstein — published a paper that outlined how the social and behavioral sciences could contribute, from boosting trust in government policies to fighting conspiracy theories. The authors were circumspect, though; the findings they summarized were “far from settled” and pre-dated the Covid-19 crisis.
Research on the social dimensions of the pandemic soon began in earnest. The National Science Foundation launched a rapid response program, which could provide up to $200,000 per grant. According to Arthur Lupia, who recently completed his term as leader of the Directorate for Social, Behavioral, and Economic Sciences, the directorate processed the same number of grants over a six-week period that spring as it normally does in six months. The nonprofit Social Science Research Council also put out a call for proposals and was overwhelmed by the response: Out of 1,300 applications, they could only fund 62.
As scientists learned more about how the coronavirus spread through the air, the science in support of social distancing and masks became clearer. Governments knew what they wanted their citizens to do, but they still had to think carefully about how to encourage people to change their behavior. That’s where nudges could help.
Researchers didn’t know if nudges would work under the extreme conditions of a pandemic. “Nudges are usually tested for the routine tasks most citizens undertake, such as submitting a tax return, not in crisis situations when both the environment and people’s choices are anything but routine,” wrote four academics who ran a survey on people’s intentions to adhere to the U.K.’s first stay-at-home order. The paper looked at whether public health messages could nudge behavior. Were people more likely to comply if they were told everyone else was abiding by the rules? Or was it better to stress how social distancing would benefit someone specific, like grandparents?
The results were discouraging: Behavior change only occurred when people were asked to take an extra step of writing about how they intended to reduce the spread while reflecting on someone more likely to be vulnerable or to be exposed to the virus. But the impact faded within two weeks.
A similar experiment in Italy, conducted in mid-March and published on the preprint server medRxiv, showed that such nudges mattered little because most people already knew what they needed to do and were following orders. More information, however formulated, didn’t matter. Other early studies that used surveys to measure the impact of public health messaging in Western countries similarly showed mixed results.
Even so, there were findings that were more encouraging, such as an experiment in West Bengal that used video clips of Nobel laureate Abhijit Banerjee explaining Covid-19 public health guidance; researchers found reporting of symptoms to community health workers doubled among those who watched the videos. A similar survey-based study among low-income Americans showed that video messages from physicians increased knowledge of Covid-19 and encouraged people to seek more information. But Lupia of the NSF, which funded the studies, interpreted the findings cautiously. “Do we know if they generalize?” he asked, reflecting on whether the videos, or something similar to them, would have been so effective elsewhere. “I’m not sure.”
Not everyone jumped into Covid-19 research. Lewis, the behavioral scientist at Cornell, was nervous about the sudden pivot. In September 2020, he wrote an article in FiveThirtyEight pointing out that in fewer than seven months, 541 studies on Covid-19 had been released as preprints — a version of a paper that has yet to be peer reviewed — on PsyArXiv, the main repository for preprints in psychology. A lot of that research wasn’t ready to be applied to real-world settings, said Lewis. In October 2020, he and other likeminded psychologists expressed their misgivings in a paper titled “Use Caution When Applying Behavioral Science to Policy.”
Sibyl Anthierens, a sociologist and co-lead of the social science studies team of the European Union-funded Covid-19 research initiative RECOVER, said that pandemic researchers were able to produce studies that offered a “rich description of a particular situation,” such as how some families prevented infections from spreading within the household. But applying such findings to an ever-evolving pandemic proved tricky. Sometimes, by the time a study was finished, “the context might have already been changed completely,” she said. For example, studies done on handwashing in the first wave were no longer as relevant by the second, as the focus shifted to mask-wearing. Tailoring research to context was crucial, but difficult.
The pandemic also magnified a weakness of nudges: The effects captured by researchers could be lost when a nudge was scaled up and used to influence behavior beyond the confines of a laboratory. One meta-study, which was based on 126 randomized controlled trials — long considered the gold standard of scientific evidence — showed that where academic studies had influenced behavior on average 8.7 percent of the time, nudge units only had an impact of 1.4 percent.
As research ramped up during Covid-19, the gap between what experts thought they knew about nudges and how they function in practice widened. As Varun Gauri, a senior nonresident fellow at the Brookings Institution and former head of the World Bank’s behavioral science unit, said, the pandemic “left behavioral scientists and others kind of scratching our heads saying, what do we do?”
Once vaccines began rolling out in 2021, behavioral scientists turned to getting shots in arms. Dena Gromet, executive director of the Behavior Change for Good Initiative at the University of Pennsylvania, had co-authored a study that showed sending texts to more than 47,000 patients before their primary care visit increased flu vaccinations by 5 percent in fall 2020. The same tactic might work with the Covid-19 vaccine, she hypothesized, and, initially, it did. A study from California in the winter of 2021 used text messages to boost appointments by 6 percent and actual vaccinations by 3.6 percent.
As winter turned to spring and summer, though, vaccinations lagged. Policymakers began offering incentives. In May, Ohio announced its “Vax-a-Million” lottery: Ohioans who were vaccinated could win up to $1 million in a weekly draw that would be held over five weeks. Severalother states launched similar initiatives. Gromet was cautiously optimistic. Lotteries had successfully changed behavior before, such as by motivating adults to exercise. Other experts also thought that the chances were good. “If you need something quick and off the shelf during a crisis, I would have thought the lotteries would have been it,” said Gauri, noting that lotteries are relatively easy to implement.
Gromet and her colleagues approached Philadelphia’s officials with a proposal: They would run three sweepstakes of $50,000 each to test the impact of a lottery on vaccination rates. There was a modest increase of 11 percent in the first draw, but overall the lottery had had little effect. (The results were published on the preprint server SSRN.)
That’s why governments need to test nudges and incentives before investing their limited resources, said Gromet: “Different approaches are going to work for different people and at different times.”
Nudging works if people are already inclined to do the thing they are being reminded to do, she points out, which is why tactics that worked earlier in the vaccination campaign no longer did. Governments and businesses were increasingly dealing with vaccine holdouts who couldn’t be nudged or offered incentives. Instead, mandates caught on, with major companies like United Airlines requiring employees to get vaccinated to come to work.
No one knows if governments will continue to use heavier-handed interventions for public health, but in an August op-ed, Thaler himself suggested that it was time to do more than merely nudge those not yet vaccinated against Covid-19. Instead, he suggested sterner measures like vaccine passports and different isolation policies for vaccinated versus unvaccinated people, as adopted by the NFL. We might call these interventions, he wrote, “pushes and shoves.”
Just to confirm Yves introduction, I had the dubious pleasure this morning of reading an article in the Guardian this morning titled ‘Why can’t some scientists just admit they were wrong about Covid? by a Chair of Public Health. It features gems like this:
And no, it doesn’t mention Covid being airborne or ventilation or…. well, anything to indicate that this particular Chair has learned anything.
Note that the article doesn’t mention those antivirals by name. I wonder why that might be.
I think “test to treat” is a great idea – but I am concerned that, for the general population in the U.S. [not even worrying about our fellow human beings worldwide, even though our fate is intertwined with theirs] it is currently and for an unforeseeable future “vapourware” – one needs staff, facilities, tests, and treatments to all be available, and I wonder how soon and to what extent these things are going to be funded and implemented.
In the meantime, every time I drop into a Montgomery County MD library I pick up another few masks and test kits, currently being distributed free of charge – for how long, one doesn’t know. In general, we live in a world of radical contingency – as Yogi Berra could have said, “You never know when something surprising might happen.”
If you’re vaxed, no nudging. The Week: When the latest COVID wave arrives, do nothing
One of the many things that irritates me about the whole issue of behavioural economics and ‘nudge’ theory, is that we have a bunch of economists and (generally very young) psychologists who seem to be unaware that there is a world (academic or otherwise) outside the tiny narrow range of sources they use, or experiences that they seem addicted to using as anecdotes. For one thing, sociologists, geographers and historians have been studying group behaviour for a very long time, long before economists realised this was an area worth muscling into. And of course, long before sociologists got to work, every ruler in history or prehistory has tried to work out what works best to get the populace to do what they wanted.
To take a very obvious example, even a short study of the history of Asian countries, in particular Singpore, Japan and Korea, will show that contrary to the cliche that the populations there are somehow more malleable and obedient than the west, their governments have been extremely successful at using a mixture of social pressure, regulation, and straight up enforcement, to get people to behave in the way they want them to. For example, we tend to think of Japan as a super clean and hygenic country. But any reading of travellers before the 1960’s would know the perception was the exact opposite. It was mostly government action prior to the ’64 Olympics that created a culture of hygiene, and it was mostly intended to impress foreigners. It did of course have the plus point of creating a far healthier society. Much the same also applies to a lot of Northern European countries.
It should be noted that the one key thing that links those countries that seem to be able to get their populaces to behave in the ‘correct’ manner is that they have governments that know they have to earn the trust of the populace, and perhaps more relevantly, when they make rules, they make sure everyone follows them. Anyone who has spent time in Sweden or ROK or Singapore or Japan will know that if you break even very minor or what seems to be silly rules… well, you don’t get away with it.
Thank you and well said, PK.
What made this worse than the irritation PK identifies was when these types got together with the “preachy” and “managerial” Blair, Brown and Cameron governments and, based at Downing Street, not in ministries, began to run amok. They also linked up with shysters like Richard Florida and Malcolm Gladwell. It’s an Anglo-American network as the likes of Florida advised the British government and former Downing Street adviser and FT columnist Camilla Cavendish* teaches at Harvard. These family bloggers even made a brief appearance at basket case Deutsche Bank.
Cavendish’s husband applied to become governor of the Bank of England, but did not get it. As he’s well connected, a non job was created for him at the Bank. He had no qualification in any of this nudge theory stuff, but still floated some of it as solutions to social, bank and bankster / employee behaviour.
One geographer who comments widely on covid is Oxford geography professor Danny Dorling, but the MSM and PMC, often the Zero Covid and FBPE types, keep him off the aiwaves.
What PK says about Japan is what I have heard from elderly former colleagues and relatives who knew Singapore from the 1940s and 1950s.
I heard from family and friends in Mauritius that most people fined for not wearing masks, indoors and outdoors, in the summer / holiday peak season were tourists, often younger ones, from Europe. They have no idea what these societies are really like.
I’ve heard plenty of stories of very arrogant behaviour from tourists and ‘expats’ from western countries elsewhere. I follow a few westerners living in Japan on Twitter and the attitude they have to local rules is really disturbing. As someone once quipped ‘what on earth would the Japanese be able to do without white expats telling them where they are going wrong?’.
I wish this paper had contrasted effects of information vs nudges but it passes through this with only a few words, for instance in some examples on Italy by paragraph 15. One could conclude that when people is informed nudges don’t make a dent.
I feel the same as you about behavioural economists: irritation. My feeling is that they treat any theme as economic games. And the pandemic was and is anything but a game. Indeed human behaviour, at individual and collective level is an essential part of the evolution of epidemics and the most stupid epidemiologists know this to their bones. Many have seen developments and reactions by policymakers with dismay.
I think that on this behavioural stuff the main factor now is Covid fatigue. This is possibly what is pushing for the ‘pandemic is over’ by decree/edict. I see Covid fatigue at all levels and we are collectively throwing in the towel: pandemic information is scarcer and less reliable (both data collection and release), measures abandoned (no mandates any longer: no masks, no vaccination, no lockdowns, no nothing). Will we let it all to ‘nudges’?
Covid fatigue certainly is a thing, but even on the streets of Dublin nearly every Asian (mostly Chinese) person I see is wearing their mask. Irish and others are not. The official advice here is that masks are not compulsory, but still advised indoors. This is almost universally ignored (even by the elderly overweight people I see in my local shop). You can either think that Covid Fatigue is solely a condition of white/brown/black people and Asians are immune to it, or you can conclude that hygiene education in Asian countries goes deeper and is more effective. Maybe because they have no idea what ‘nudges’ are.
People from East Asia wear masks when they have a cold, and since C19 is a disease transmitted much colds and flu are, mask wearing is the logical step. C19 wasn’t the start of mask wearing here.
Where I live, Livermore, SF East Bay, we’re mostly still wearing masks. Covid fatigue is certainly a normal human reaction to a long, hard pull, but human’s get past that sort of fatigue regularly. I think the bigger problem is Covid “Fraud” on so many levels, and in so many ways. I know I don’t need to elaborate.
I’ve spent 20 plus years living and working in Asia. Be VERY careful of confusing slick government public relations campaigns with reality. Asian cultures DO prefer more authoritarian governments and because they lack the ethnic biases and friction that more “diverse” countries they can enforce laws and regulations more easily and with less opposition and friction.
I lived in Beijing through the 2008 Olympics, The downtown area was leveled and rebuilt into a slick, modern, tourist center and is still promoted as a typical representation of life in China throughout the world. But it IS NOT. There are still 800 million dirt poor, uneducated, peasants in China and MOST of China DOES NOT look like downtown Beijing and Shanghai.
Government’s usually have dual purposes for their “health and safety” campaigns and the “health and safety” part is only a small part of it. The money, power is the driving force.
With global tyranny spreading throughout the world and the use of modern technology to spread propaganda and government lies at a rate never seen before in history we need to start moving away from BIG government controls and get back to organic natural growth and tell them to shove their Utopian, nudges, regulations, and tyranny where the sun don’t shine and take control of our lives, families and countries back while we still have them.
There are over 20 new billionaires in the pharmaceutical industry and millions of people lives have been destroyed over a virus with over 98% recovery rate.
These people ARE NOT looking out for you. They are looking out for themselves.
What a strange and frustrating article. So while people were losing jobs and frantic to find a way to protect themselves and their families, the government was offering grant money for “behavioral research” on “nudges”.
Perhaps that money could have been spent on public clinics and nurses’ salaries. Or something much more directly linked to people’s needs.
This concept seems to me to be a variant of blaming the victim. Yes, there are behaviors that have social impact, but first, you need a society that shares a sense of communal identity. I’m not sure that is what we have in a national sense. And I feel that the things mentioned as nudges in this article are examples of just how unaware of this vacuum the writers and policy makers are.
Take lotteries for example. Yes, money is an incentive. But only one person can win and a vaccination program needs a much wider, accepted incentive that doesn’t count on other people losing. Plus the vaccine lottery is itself competing with real lotteries that are easy to buy tickets for. It’s just a stupid idea, really.
But even more angering, to me, is that in real time, it was just plain HARD to get vaccinated. And finding masks wasn’t easy. As for testing! What a mess that was. And as far as I can tell, none of those problems have been fixed.
The information coming from government was confusing and often downright wrong. As time went on, it looked deliberately disingenuous. And now, it’s simply not trustworthy.
Finally, this nudging concept is so top down, while being simultaneously so ineffective. Not a good look. But people got paid to do the research, so hey! Win-win.
Yes, it seems to me that nudges = discount means to signal having done something to chivvy citizens towards a certain course of action that a) costs no real money, b) requires no substantive action and crucially c) is immune from judgement because its failure can be blamed on the mulish citizens rather than the galactic Susstein brains (isn’t his wife Samantha Power? I don’t ever believe that a partner should be held accountable for the crimes of their partners purely based on their romantic relationship, but when both have made their bones separately on the bloody fields of neoliberal class war, perhaps we can suggest they may be, just a bit, bad ‘uns?)
Horrible ideas for horrible people. As they successfully implement a Zero Covid strategy that even notwithstanding the let her rip determination of the West and its satrapies has meant less than 10,000 Covid deaths in China against an in many areas ageing population of 1.4 billions, I wonder what price Cass’s 50 dollar words for 10 cent ideas?
Why are there no nudges toward early treatment? Asking for a friend.
As for that United Airlines mandate, ISTR reading that it’s going to be rescinded at the end of this month.
BTW, there’s going to be another rally in LA:
The trouble with nudge theory is that they are what they are – psychological tricks. And when people learn that they are being nudged/tricked, then watch out. They get resentful because they learn that they are being treated as children and that their authorities will not bother trying to explain to them what is going on and why and treat them as adults. And of course trust is broken. Many people have lost trust in medical authorities the past two years and for good reason too. But everybody pays the price of that happening. If you do not believe my theory, then consider the following scenario.
So some teenagers are growing up in a household and though they feel restricted, have learned to accept the rules. Then one day, they accidentally find their mother’s well-thumbed textbook on raising children and in reading all these ‘strategies’ and ‘tricks’ on how to bring up teenagers, they realize that they recognize what has been done to them for years. I leave the reader to imagine what happens then. Trust is gone now and you can’t get it back. People aren’t stupid and soon they see the pattern with these nudges by their betters and they do not like it. And so when trust is needed, it won’t be there.
Exactly. This is my festering resentment from the whole Covid experience – being treated like a child and guilt tripped / cajoled / threatened to do what I was told. No grown up explanation and discussion of absolute/relative risks etc.
NC is basically one of the last places on the internet where one feels encouraged to be a grown up and exercise critical thinking.
I’m a believer in nudges, but the problem is that the nudges are small, incoherent and stupid, as well as changing. Giving up on incentives because people’s behaviors don’t change after they get offered a lottery ticket from someone they don’t trust sounds absurd to me. How often do these economists buy lottery tickets for themselves I wonder? Give them $1,000 cash(or check if they prefer) on the spot and I bet behaviors change. I notice that people seem to follow the herd on masking, that’s a nudge, too. I feel kind of like a jackass being the only one masking and being careful, not enough to stop, but it’s a powerful force, and I am glad that masking isn’t banned so I can ignore the nudge to go back to normal.
On the other hand, I’d rather be nudged than mandated, fined or taxed.
I recall the brutality of seat belt mandates. We fought it. We got tickets. We threw tantrums.
Now we just wear seatbelts.
Nudging has its place. So do mandates.
But a world coming apart due to neoliberalism doesn’t trust anyone. Nudges won’t work. Mandates won’t work.
And here we are.
“But a world coming apart due to neoliberalism doesn’t trust anyone. Nudges won’t work. Mandates won’t work. ”
Exactly, our “elites” either lack self awareness (i don’t think they do) or they’re lying (i think they are). So many betrayals and crisis over the years have only benefited them. Why would they think they continue to ask people to sacrifice when they’ve shown countless times they can’t be trusted? This is why i think World War or almost any war besides a physical invasion of the US would not be in their favor. Nobody trusts them anymore, and they were slapped in the face with it when Trump was elected. Instead of trying to reform themselves they doubled down in typical high school politics and started to spread rumors about the people they don’t like. So you know, people don’t trust them and are searching for alternative view points, being lazy as they are JUST BAN THEM! Which further erodes trust. Its hard these days to figure out if this is on purpose or they’re really just that incompetent.
The revelation that Hunter Biden was involved through Burisma Holdings, in funding US bi-o labs in Ukraine
On behalf of the DoD, needs lots of clarification and daylight. Ukraine is apparently worried that Russia may find and use ingredients intended to be used on Russians. Curious to know how many labs?