Accessibility links

Matthew Taylor has started a discussion concerning the different approaches of ‘nudge’ and ‘think’ to civic behaviour change. The source of the discussion is Gerry Stoker, Peter John and Graham Smith’s paper entitled ‘Nudge, nudge, think, think: Two strategies for changing civic behaviour’.

Matthew Taylor has started a discussion concerning the different approaches of ‘nudge’ and ‘think’ to civic behaviour change. The source of the discussion is Gerry Stoker, Peter John and Graham Smith’s paper entitled ‘Nudge, nudge, think, think: Two strategies for changing civic behaviour’.

Nudge’ is the term for a change in 'choice architecture' that guides behaviour without restricting free choice. (If I am enrolled by default in a pension plan, because of my psychological ‘inertia’ I may well stay enrolled, but I can leave the scheme if I wish. Thus the Government has changed my behaviour without restricting my free choice by making use of a psychological quirk of the human mind.)

 

I’m not sure what ‘think’ means exactly in this context, but the authors seem to identify it with public deliberation.

 

It seems that 'nudge' has limited application. One danger is that ‘nudges’ only lead to rather shallow or compartmentalised changes in behaviour – I enrol in a pension but continue to overspend on credit cards. Another is that they are disempowering or infantilising: without incorporation into a coherent self-identity, my behaviour changes piecemeal without my really knowing why, so I do not learn to change it myself.

 

I think this last point is perhaps overplayed as an argument against ‘nudges’. There is no reason why we can't reflectively endorse them - sometimes I might be fully aware that the doughnuts are placed at the farthest end of the Supermarket to make me less likely to buy them. Yet I might just think to myself: ‘oh that’s a good idea, it makes it easier for me to resist’. I then might even learn from this experience and start to nudge myself – learn not to leave the chocolate biscuits out on the table when at home. The rest of the time, when I don’t think about the choice architecture, it simply guides my behaviour.

 

There is something cynical at the heart of ‘nudge’ though. Its advocates categorise people into three camps: those who will make the right free choices off their own backs and thus don’t need ‘nudging’; those who need to be ‘nudged’ but will realise, to a lesser or greater extent, that they have been; and those that will neither decide aright for themselves nor realise they have been nudged, so that all we can do is nudge them. This last camp are simply given up on in terms of being empowered to change their own behaviour, rather like the patrician classes of the nineteenth century thought the poor unworthy of education and suffrage.

 

Where ‘nudge’ is cynical, ‘think’ might be naïve. If its approach to behaviour change is that we reflectively endorse all our choices according to deliberatively agreed goals, then this expects too much from human psychology and cognitive capacity. We can, from time to time, think in this way about what we are to do. But any new behaviour needs to bed down and become more or less automatic (people will take reusable bags to the shops not because they think about it every time they go shopping, but because it becomes habit, what everybody does). Policy which aims to get people thinking about every single thing they do is doomed to failure: the vast majority of people just do not and cannot work like that.

 

‘Think’s’ naïveté comes from an attribution error – a story we tell ourselves: that when we save for a pension, recycle, act morally, this is because we have decided through reflection, all by our little selves, that this is the right thing to do and that those who haven’t done the same just haven’t tried as hard. But that is not the whole story. We do all these things because we have the capabilities to do them. And these capabilities often result from simply copying those around us so that the behaviours in question become habit.

 

Once we have gained the capabilities to act in these ways we can deliberate and reflect on how best to adapt and change in novel circumstances, so that we may achieve certain goals, both moral and prudent. But we do not get the dispositions that enable us to do this by our own individual powers of thinking and willing - we get them from imitating, inculcation, social influence, the training of our emotions and cognitive processes.

 

Giving up on large sections of people (deciding they can only be ‘nudged’), and expecting too much of people through adopting ‘think’, are two sides of the same coin. Both approaches do not address the real issue, which is building capabilities so people can think for themselves when – but only when - the need arises.

 

 

Comments

Be the first to write a comment

Please login to post a comment or reply.

Don't have an account? Click here to register.