Former New Statesman editor Peter Wilby writing in the Guardian yesterday, produced a critical piece on the use of Nudges in public policy. He described authors Thaler and Sustein’s “libertarian paternalism” as bearing “the same theological relationship to Friedmanite economics (Milton Friedman was also a Chicago professor) as intelligent design does to creationism”.
The danger with this critique is that Nudges, which are a tool to change the “choice architecture“(eg change the order of the food counter to emphasise salads over sweets) are then characterised as being purely something related to a single political philosophy (ie Libertarian Paternalism). Perceiving a behavioural tool in partisan terms could lead to it being discounted by the other side in any political debate.
This would be a tragedy as the opportunity to secure positive social outcomes in areas where there is wide political agreement (reducing poor health or education outcomes) could be weakened. Hopefully the debate around the forthcoming Public Health White Paper and the outcome of Graham Allen’s Early Intervention Commission could lead to a recognition of sustained long-term action through a range of approaches including the use of Nudges.
Nudges are an approach where we are spared the cognitive effort of thinking too hard about the behaviour in question. As well as the political debate above, others argue that behavioural approaches that make us debate or think more can also be effective. Matthew Taylor of the RSA now champions “Steer” and Professor Gerry Stoker says the alternative is to “Think“.
Who is right in this part of the debate?
The answer is that there is no magic bullet, just a wide choice in ammunition.
Context is also king and the social network that you are in really counts. What people around you do has a vast impact as Mark Earls, the author of Herd has recently written praising the work of Nicholas Christakis and his recent book Connected.
The recent Cabinet Office Mindspace report also shows the vast range of tools one can use in behavioural interventions.
The most important lesson from this research is to gather the deep information to ensure one uses the right mix of tools to deliver an effective intervention through a clear understanding of the context that existing behaviour operates within. So before deploying Nudge, Think, Steer and all the other one word behaviour change solutions that are on offer, the fundamental prior action is also one word – “Insight”!
Charlie Mansell is Research and Development Officer for the Campaign Company