Prescription For Healthy Living
The Death of Current Religion

Another day, another article defending nudge (but missing the point)

Mark D. White

Recently it was David Brooks, today it's Peter Reiner writing at Slate, reporting that people are less opposed to nudges the more they align with their interests, and interpreting this as weakening the case for autonomy.

Using the crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk, we polled 2,775 people, asking them to what degree they were willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes when presented with nudges that helped with everything from healthier food choices to spending money more wisely. The short answer is just what one might expect: Sometimes they liked the nudges and other times they didn’t. When we presented people with nudges that clearly allowed them to deliberate on the issue—to fully authenticate the decision—participants in our surveys were more receptive than when the nudges appeared to manipulate them by tapping into subconscious thinking. But overall people were not terribly averse to being gently pushed in the “right” direction. Apparently, autonomy is not quite as exalted a value as libertarians might believe.

In fact, this reinforces the value of autonomy, which is more about having a measure of control over how one's life is conducted rather than simply making individual choices freely, and easily encompasses self-constraint if freely chosen. The people above preferred nudges that were consistent with autonomy, those that "clearly allowed them to deliberate on the issue" and "fully authenticate the decision." These are not, however, your ordinary nudges, which subvert the rational decision-making process, relying on cognitive biases and heuristics to generate their intended effect.

Also, like Brooks, Reiner does not seem to appreciate that the interests promoted by nudges are not people's own interests, but rather policymakers' idea of those interests (as I explain in The Manipulation of Choice). Again, Reiner states that "when people recognized that their objectives in life aligned with the nudge and knew that they were struggling with achieving that objective, they generally endorsed the nudge" (emphasis in original). Of course they did, again consistent with autonomy and choice. If Mary is trying to lose weight, she may very well appreciate a nudge that promises to help her eat less and exercise more. Her approval of this is akin to joining Weight Watchers: a deliberate action to constrain her own choices, which is a reflection of her autonomy as well as a recognition of her own lack of self-control. This doesn't imply, however, that she'd welcome the nudge being forced on her; even if the nudge is truly in her interests, she may still value the option of approving the nudge herself.

Reiner ends with:

In a world awash with temptation, a mark of wisdom might be taking a hard look at ourselves and understanding the reality of our natural strengths and weaknesses. Were we to do so, we would likely welcome a helpful nudge now and then.

"Now and then," yes, but we rarely have the choice. In cases such as Mary's, we often  recognize our own strengths and weakness and many of us welcome some help, whether in the form of nudges or not. The problem with most nudges, such as the paradigm cases in Thaler and Sunstein's book, is that they are not voluntarily chosen nor are they made apparent to the decision-maker. They are "helpful" only in the sense that someone else thinks we need help, because we are not making the choices they would have us make—in their idea of our interests.

Mary might approve of a weight-loss nudge, but her friend Martha may not, feeling that it does not align with her interests. She prefers to exercise her autonomy by making her own choices free of paternalistic manipulation. Does she need "help"? Does she have a choice?


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Sorry that I have not (yet) read your book, but I am not sure we disagree that much. Most especially as you appear to have 'missed the point' of my piece in Slate. Or at least one of the points. I say "when nudges let people align the outcomes of their decisions with what they really want to achieve, the nudge effectively enhances autonomy." This is precisely what you suggest - that when our intentions are aligned, the nudge just lets us achieve our life objectives rather than fail miserably (ask anyone who has been on a diet plan....)

No need to apologize, and thank you for commenting. True, we don't disagree on that specific aspect of nudges (as I noted above when I quoted you), but that doesn't get to my main point, which was that most nudges are not voluntarily chosen by the people subject to them, but rather apply to all, who had no choice in the matter (whether they would have chosen them or not).

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