Post No.: 0414
Education evidently isn’t enough sometimes to get people to do what’s good for them. For example, there are many health professionals who don’t even lead healthy lifestyles when they obviously know what they must do and understand it’ll be beneficial for them. I for one can accept though that it’s not always easy to practise what we preach. (Damn bone treats!)
People thus often need help to make more accurate judgements and better decisions. However, a faith in human rationality is closely linked to an ideology where it’s deemed unnecessary or even immoral to protect people against their own choices. People – for being rational beings – should be free and responsible for taking care of themselves.
An addicted recreational drug user is said to rationally accept long-term addiction in exchange for intense and immediate gratification. But really, ask almost any real-life addict and they’ll tell you that they want to stop but just can’t! A person may be said to have become obese due to a rational expected-value wager that cures for heart disease, diabetes, liver failure, etc. will soon be available. But which real-life human really thinks this way?!
In a world of ‘Econs’ (people who, according to the classical theory of economics, are always rational and use logic), governments should keep out of the way as long as people do no harm to others. But in a world of real humans, laws are required to an extent. (Also, ‘causing harm to others’ is broader than one may think e.g. children merely seeing some adults smoking, which will harm these children because they may copy that behaviour; or a person not using safety gear getting killed, which causes witnesses to experience psychological trauma, for humans are empathic creatures. Everything in the world is too intrinsically interconnected according to the fundamental laws of nature to think of choices, actions and their consequences too separately or individualistically.) People may know what they’re doing if they don’t save for their old age or health care, for instance, and we may argue that they’ll get what they deserve, but such people will vote in ways that’ll serve their own interests, such as to protect their state pensions when they become old – thus one could (ironically) blame rationally self-interested behaviours for shaping governmental policies and why certain laws exist and ‘interfere’ with our lives(!)
Anyway, behavioural economists, who reject the extreme form of the classical rational-agent model, understand that freedom has its costs because real humans make irrational mistakes.
But encouraging citizens to make optimal decisions doesn’t have to be achieved via force. ‘Libertarian paternalism’ is when the state and other institutions are allowed to nudge people into making decisions that serve people’s own long-term interests, such as making the membership of a pension plan the default option – freedom isn’t curtailed because they can still opt out, and there’s no misdirection or artifice either. The framing of an individual’s choice has a huge effect on the outcome of those who are unsure of what to choose or do in a particular situation.
So a ‘nudge’ is when we design the ‘choice architecture’ (the presentation of options and the impact of them) so that people’s behaviours are influenced in a more predictable way without forbidding any options or substantially altering their economic incentives (i.e. the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid). A nudge isn’t a directive, so arrows on the floor pointing to a staircase is a nudge, but banning escalators is not. Shaping societal norms via peer pressures can also be considered nudging too.
Nudge theory is based on behavioural science so has real humans in mind from the start. Real humans also need protection from others who’ll exploit the weaknesses of ‘system one’ and lazy ‘system two’ (e.g. rational agents are assumed to make important decisions carefully and use all information that’s provided, but most real humans don’t read or understand the small print before agreeing to contracts, thus a nudge could call for simpler language in contracts). And it’s a good sign if some corporations oppose nudging because their profits might suffer if their customers were better informed – a world where companies compete by offering genuinely superior products is much better than a world where the successful are whoever are the best at obfuscation.
In some cases though, we can inform people fully (and in every way of framing) yet they’ll still not change (e.g. nearly everyone knows enough nowadays about excessive consumption and obesity, yet still many people become obese despite never wanting to become obese, and loathe becoming obese and want to lose weight if they do) – therefore the argument that ‘people only behave irrationally because they’re not sufficiently and truthfully informed’ is nullified. Again, awareness and education isn’t enough in some cases to achieve optimal states of society. Hence some nudges need to be relatively stronger (e.g. stashing away any high-sugar snacks in a vault that takes at least 30 seconds to get into – we can still access those snacks if we really wanted to, but that small extra effort will make us think twice about whether we’re really hungry or we just crave those snacks out of mindless habit?) Even when presented with all of the information to make a rational decision, people in many contexts would rather take the easiest option.
How much time someone has, how many other people are present, who is there, who thinks what, whether one has prepared a concrete plan of action, having no clear exit strategies, whether another person is wearing a hi-vis jacket or lab coat, the diffusion of responsibility, whether you are in the position of power or not, gradual escalation, the wording in a questionnaire, the default option, the placement of a switch, an obstacle or confusing element, something that makes something easier or more accessible to do, rewarding or punishing certain behaviours… are examples of ‘channel factors’, or the influential triggers or antecedents in the environment that help push/pull or promote/inhibit people’s behaviours one way or another. They’re indirect (there’s still a choice, it’s not about force, it’s a nudge not a shove) and often subtle but very influential. Triggers for action at/near the site and time of action work far better than even fear, education or priming. Understanding these channel factors helps us to predict behaviours. They can also help us to manipulate behaviours too (well everything has to have some kind of design). So you can use this knowledge to your advantage to bridge intention and action, and to guard yourself if these factors are being used on you (e.g. supermarkets placing confectionery near the checkouts).
When people plan a long-term meal plan in advance, they tend to put down healthy meal choices and a healthy meal plan, but when it comes to the days they’re supposed to consume these meals, they can experience internal conflict and divert to making an unhealthy meal choice, thus defeating their long-term rational desire to stick to the healthy plan. We tend to go, “I’ll have the pizza today and have the salad tomorrow” but of course when tomorrow comes we’ll go for the pizza again(!) We can state a future aim or desire, but then select current preferences that are inconsistent with these long-term goals. We’re hardly rational beings. We suffer from dozens of biases, such as being ‘present biased’, hence hyperbolic discounting – we tend to prefer pleasures now compared to marginally greater pleasures later. And the evidence repeatedly shows that it doesn’t matter how many times we’re told a piece of advice – more information alone won’t likely change our behaviours.
We can be enlightened via information campaigns about how many fruits and vegetables at a minimum we should be consuming daily, and we can mentally accept this is sound advice, we don’t dispute it and we desire to do it – but if there’s nothing concrete or systematic in the environment to change our behaviours then too few will actually follow the advice with their actual behaviours. Therefore, emphasising things that people can do ‘tomorrow’ or ‘soon’ – such as via information campaigns or presenting a healthy meal plan, which can be disobeyed/changed without penalty – is seldom effective at tackling obesity.
People are more present-biased thus it’ll be more effective to implement strategies that’ll shape their behaviours in their present environment, such as shorter and more immediate incentives for choosing healthful options. In the above meal planning scenario – although not quite a nudge – one could place money down to stick to the plan (a form of commitment device which introduces concrete benefit/cost incentives for sticking to/deviating from the plan), which will be immediately forfeited on any day one deviates from the plan or be immediately returned on any day one sticks to it. Alternatively, the environment can be reshaped to nudge and encourage more healthful choices at the point of sale, transaction or use (e.g. placing healthier choices at eye-level in stores). Some things can be self-implemented without external interventions too. So implementing incentives and/or smarter environmental designs to make or encourage more healthful choices is one contributing way to help tackle the obesity crisis.
With nudges, we still have ultimate personal freedom of choice and the incentives are about the same (e.g. no extra subsidies or taxes for taking one choice over another) but we’re guided to more likely take certain choices over others. The number of options remain the same but changing the presentation of some or all of them can encourage the uptake of some options over others (e.g. emphasising a healthy portion size as the ‘default’ size on a menu). It’s non-coercive decision-making – no options are added or removed, and no options are substantially rewarded or punished over others. It’s just nudging people towards making better choices for themselves. Woof!
The argument that they’re still manipulative is a legitimate concern – but no environment is neutral in how it consciously, subconsciously or unconsciously influences us! Furthermore, and more important to note, is that for-profit food manufacturers, for example, with the primary priority of maximising shareholder value rather than consumer health, have been spending billions upon billions per year manipulating our food choices through marketing, branding, commercial advertising everywhere, packaging designs, shop designs, point of sale, promotions, etc. for decades!
The most successful form of mind control is one where the population doesn’t even realise it, never mind question it! We all question the actions of governments or the well-intentioned, but some don’t question the actions of corporations or the messages presented in advertising. In the case of most state health initiatives at the very least, governments are trying to help people to become more healthy and are following scientific advice, whilst private corporations are primarily focused on maximising their own profits. It’s also logically inconsistent and biased to deem spin or hyperbole by politicians as ‘manipulative or deceitful propaganda’ whilst simultaneously deeming spin and hyperbole by self-interested and profit-motivated corporations or individuals as ‘shrewd or clever marketing’! They’re about the same!
Cultures and environments change and therefore certain behaviours express or repress depending on the environmental opportunities or pressures present (e.g. online commerce and social media reduce the necessity of face-to-face interactions, and the potential consequences of this on individuals and society as a whole). So don’t assume that our behaviours always stay the same despite our furry genetics staying essentially the same – our environment shapes us greatly, and can therefore work for or against us. This is why the environment can effectively ‘nudge’ our choices and behaviours. Individual choice isn’t as individual and idiosyncratic as one may believe – we are shaped and influenced by our immediate environment to a large extent, for better or worse.
Human environments are or can be designed, and we don’t necessarily need to force people to do things that are good. Although grants, subsidies, taxes, fines, laws and enforcement have their function and place – perhaps we could try a nudge first?