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As the government begins to use ‘nudge’ policies for real, Clive Gross argues we risk over simplifying why we do not change our behaviour.<!--more-->

This week I have been reading Daniel Goleman's latest book Ecological Intelligence, which, apparently, contains the neat idea that is going to help save our planet from environmental catastrophe in the shape of Radical Transparency. Like many of the huge number of titles in the genre, you can sum up Goleman's idea in a few sentences:

As consumers, we still have very little idea of the true costs of the goods and services we buy as we don't look at the full life cycle of the production, use and disposal – or, hopefully, the recycling - of them (true). Hence, many of the products labeled as green, organic or environmentally friendly are really only marginally better than their competitors as these claims are made based only on a narrow part of the products' full life cycle (also true). Therefore, if we can provide consumers with a full Life Cycle Analysis of everything made (the Radical Transparency bit), we will all change our habits and the planet will be saved.

While Goleman himself may not quite make that claim, it's certainly how his publisher is pitching the book. Unfortunately, there is very little evidence in our behaviour as a species on which to base this rather over optimistic conclusion. For example, if smokers had heeded the overwhelming medical evidence that their habit killed them for the decades before the public smoking ban, hundreds of thousands of people would have avoided a foreshortened life and unpleasant death. Even since the ban, those who huddle outside of public buildings in the freezing cold to feed their habit either do not know (hard to believe) or do not care what smoking will do to them sufficiently to quit.

Goleman appears to fall into the trap of other 'No1 International Bestselling Authors' in this field who extract one simplistic but worthy idea and present it as a whole philosophy. Ekhardt Tolle is another notable culprit in works such as The Power of Now, where he pulls a single idea that occurs in many ancient belief systems and turns it into a miracle cure for mankind. For those not familiar with the book, it basically states that as we cannot change what has happened in the past, and as we cannot accurately predict or control what will happen in the future, it is only by being fully present and aware in the 'now' that we can exercise any real power. This concept has been knocking around for at least 30,000 years and can be found, for example, as one of the seven basic principals of Huna, the Shamanic tradition of Hawaii.

So, if we know logically and consciously that something is bad for us, and there is overwhelming independent evidence to back that understanding up, why do we dumb apes carry on with the behaviour? In a short passage early on in his book, Goleman does at least hit this particular nail on the head. Our brains are wired to notice and react to sensory changes in a very narrow range and for events that present an imminent threat: our famous fight or flight reactions. Things that take longer (in our terms) to see or make a just noticeable difference to our senses tend to be ignored, as they are not likely to cause us immediate harm.

This crucial piece of understanding of our own nature is put neatly and clearly in Dan Gardner's excellent book Risk. He uses example after example of how poor we humans are at understanding and judging long-term risk (and by long-term we are only talking about less than the term of an average mortgage) and why we are so prone to and can be manipulated and exploited by irrational fears. Our huge technological advances have not been kept pace with by our much slower brain development, so that we are left trying to negotiate 21st century society with a brain designed to serve us well as nomadic hunter gatherers. This is highlighted again by the RSA’s own work such as the Social Brain project, which is has been working ‘to shed light on our typically implicit and often erroneous theories of human nature.’

This is not our fault, of course, but being aware of this blind spot in our nature does give us the opportunity - really the obligation - to do something about it. As the RSA’s Steer report has highlighted, ‘if knowledge is power, knowledge about your own nature ought to be particularly empowering’. As passionate as I am as a coach about personal empowerment and creating an environment where we can each function at our maximum power and effectiveness, I am realistic enough to understand that we still need a communal framework to operate in to compensate for our myopia. This to me is the true role of government.

This is why I am concerned that another pop-science book in the form of Thaler and Sunstein's Nudge appears to be holding so much sway with parts of our current Coalition, as evidenced by Health Minister Andrew Lansley’s speech introducing the new White Paper Healthy Lives, Healthy People to Parliament recently where he announced that ‘rather than nannying people, we will nudge them.’

Once again, a simplistic idea that you can nudge people to change their behaviour and make better choices by doing things like putting 'healthy' food in more prominent places on supermarket shelves than 'unhealthy' options sounds nice. It certainly fits in with the outlook of many current ministers obsessed by our artificial market lead of freedom of choice. However, as this weeks’ report from the Association of Public Health Observatories shows, even after the supposedly nanny state years of New Labour, the UK remains the most obese nation in the EU and one of the highest rates of teenage pregnancy.

These superficial actions may have some effect and are not in themselves harmful. That is unless they begin to replace the need for strategic actions on a national or international scale. Most experts in the public heath field agree that the causes of the health inequalities that result in the findings of this and many other reports on public health are socially determined. As councils across the country receive details of their grant settlement from central government this week, it is already clear that the huge reduction in grant to some of the most deprived areas in the country – including my own local Borough Council in Hastings – could threaten the survival of successful schemes such as Sure Start.

The real pity of this latest version of the argument between personal and state responsibility dressed up as Nudge v Nanny is that it is an entirely false one. Despite landmark legislation like the public smoking ban, the last government failed to intervene to force food manufacturers to reduce the level of sugar and salt in many essential basic foods, for instance, which makes the choices available to consumers by the time it gets to the supermarket shelves largely irrelevant.

Being truly personally responsible also requires us to understand its limits and engage with putting in place systems that allow us to excel while stopping us from falling down big black holes.Maybe the members of our current government who seem so keen on moving us forward into Victorian times should look back a little over 100 years to Joseph Rowntree’s memorandum that founded his famous Foundation. In it he said ‘I feel that much of the current philanthropic effort is directed to remedying the more superficial manifestations of weakness or evil, while little thought or effort is directed to search out their underlying causes.’

A century later we know the underlying causes and yet we are in danger once again of missing the point and going after the ‘superficial manifestations’ armed only with a nudge.

Clive Gross, Community Business Coach blogs on and is currently writing a book about the failures of urban regeneration policy.


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