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Nudging, as Jonathan Rowson points out in a recent post on this blog, is already the flavour of the month and looks like being at the top of the menu for the rest of 2011. The government has recently announced that in the coming year we will be ‘nudged’ towards paying our taxes, quitting smoking, insulating our houses and signing up to be an organ donor. The media is lavishing attention on the idea. And the term is gaining such traction that it’s being misapplied to behaviour change measures which are rather more ‘shove’ than ‘nudge’, such as the decision to increase tax on high-strength beer and reduce it on low-alcohol brews.

Nudging, as Jonathan Rowson points out in a recent post on this blog, is already the flavour of the month and looks like being at the top of the menu for the rest of 2011. The government has recently announced that in the coming year we will be ‘nudged’ towards paying our taxes, quitting smoking, insulating our houses and signing up to be an organ donor. The media is lavishing attention on the idea. And the term is gaining such traction that it’s being misapplied to behaviour change measures which are rather more ‘shove’ than ‘nudge’, such as the decision to increase tax on high-strength beer and reduce it on low-alcohol brews.

At the moment, all this publicity and attention seems a bit ironic, given that nudges are meant to be minor interventions which operate unnoticed in the background. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given this is a new idea – in UK policy terms, at least. But for a number of reasons, it risks causing problems in the long run.

If nudges are to succeed, it’s surely better that we don’t recognise them for what they are and what they are trying to do.

First, there’s the point I’ve just made: if nudges are meant to go unnoticed, will they work if we are looking out for them? One of the arguments made in favour of nudges is that they are the antithesis of public approaches to behaviour change, like didactic communication, education and regulation. Apparently, in the past we have ignored, misinterpreted or reacted against these measures. We seem to have an innate antipathy to being told what to do, but because we are not very good at making behavioural choices that are in our best interests for ourselves, we have been making poor decisions in contexts ranging from healthy eating to financial planning.

Nudges are designed to circumvent this active rejection of good advice, and overcome our inability to choose well, by changing the environments in which we make subconscious decisions and thereby influencing our actions. Essentially, they work by making us passive reactors to suggestion rather than active decision makers responding to stimulus.

If nudges are to succeed, then, it’s surely better that we don’t recognise them for what they are and what they are trying to do. Otherwise we might be tempted to ignore or react against them, just as we have with direct communication. HMRC’s plan to nudge people into paying their tax by rewording its tax letters might be more effective if we respond to the suggestive wording without thinking about it than if we are looking out for it when we open the letter. So perhaps they should just go ahead and do it without telling us all about it.

Nudges are more paracetamol than radiotherapy – they might have an impact on the surface and around the edges, but they won’t address the causes of more serious and long-term problems.

Second, the current focus on nudges attracts the vocal attention of cynics and sceptics, many of whom are arguing that there is something underhand about nudging, that it is just another form of the ‘nanny state’, and/or that it involves ‘playing with people’s brains’. (There's a wonderful example here, which includes a total misunderstanding of the RSA's Social Brain project.) It seems to me that much of this criticism stems from a lack of understanding of the idea of ‘choice architecture’ which should underpin nudges – a sensible theory that is not exactly Big Brother and the Thought Police. Still, the negative commentary sounds good, and can’t help.

Third, all this attention risks giving the impression that nudges are the government’s sole response to the problems facing society today. There’s certainly a place for them, but there’s no way they can address deep-seated issues such as obesity, social isolation and binge drinking on their own. They’re more paracetamol than radiotherapy – they might have an impact on the surface and around the edges, but they won’t address the causes of more serious and long-term problems.

I can see why nudges are attractive at the moment – they’re cheap and light-touch, which is just what the government wants. But while they’re useful, they’re clearly not a panacea, and giving the impression that they are risks undermining support for them.

Nudging seems to me to be a good idea, and certainly worth a try. So perhaps the government should stay quiet about what it is planning, and just get on with nudging. If it works, they can tell us all about it afterwards.

Oh, and if I come across another blog post titled 'Nudge, nudge, wink, wink' I think I'll scream!

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