February 10, 2012 by galudwig
Environmentalists and bureaucrats have been interested in social engineering schemes for a long time. Our way of life is unsustainable, they say. We must change our behavior or our planet will be destroyed, they say. Free, self-interested people just don’t know what is good for them, they say. The traditional method these self-professed experts recommend by which our behavior is to be altered, for the greater good of course, is good old-fashioned coercion. Incandescent light bulbs are inefficient. Ban them! People’s diets are becoming more unhealthy. Impose a fat tax! CO2 emissions are causing anthropogenic global warming. Declare it a pollutant!
Some of the problems with these kinds of brute force tactics, though, is that they engender public opposition, cost a lot of money to implement and control, usually don’t reach the desired effect and cause a host of unintended consequences. Generally, the solutions which are then proposed to overcome these problems involve more force and intervention.
Non-coerced social engineering
And that’s where “nudging” comes in. Instead of the state telling us directly how to live our lives, based on whichever interest group’s vision of the perfect society is most influential at that time, and leaving us no other choice, it should instead give us gentle “nudges” in the right direction. No force or incentives should be used, the proponents of this relatively new method of social engineering claim.
Etch an image of a house fly on the urinals to give men something to aim at. Overnight, the quantity of misdirected urine fell by about 80%, according to the airport.
The painted fly is an example of a “nudge” — a subtle way of influencing behavior without offering material incentives or imposing punishments.
While the use of subliminal nudges would be a big improvement over the lamentable loss of liberty individuals have suffered all over the world due to state officials using their coercive power to attempt to alter our behavior directly, I would not go as far as to be jubilant over the idea at all.
Such subliminal influences are nothing new. But Thaler and Sunstein argue that they have the potential to be harnessed on a much grander scale — and for the collective good.
The “collective good” in this sentence is, of course, whatever the proponents of the nudge, in this case behavioral economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein, say it is.
Helping the environment
“Just imagine if your surroundings were arranged to help you make better decisions to achieve your goals,” says Thaler.
Kind of, like, a free market? Oh no, sorry, the absence of government intervention in the decisions we individuals take voluntarily would of course lead to a situation which is unsustainable and undesirable. We don’t know what’s good for us. We make the wrong decisions. Experts know much better how we should lead our lives than we do ourselves. Let’s just read this sentence again.
Just imagine if your surroundings were arranged to help you make better decisions to achieve your goals.
The amount of arrogance contained in this sentence is quite breath-taking. We are to be helped in order to make better decisions to achieve our own goals! We’re just too stupid to know what’s good for us.
The question is, could we be “nudged” into better, more sustainable practices that help the environment?
The best and most natural incentives to protect the environment we live in are given to us by a free market when the state gets out of the way. The idea that the application of private property rights and the profit motive to natural resources leads to the destruction of the planet is absurd. The truth is that sustainability can be defined in ridiculous ways that have no bearing on reality whatsoever. Unfortunately, environmentalists have been very successful in promoting these ideas with the general public, and the state is of course all too happy to use co-opt the movement as it provides a great justification to centralize power and increase government control, whereas the real issue of the environment remains largely unaddressed (or is exacerbated).
Overlooking the real problem
Looking at some other quotes from the article on nudging (see the bottom of this post for the link),
Much of our behavior is habitual, says Pelle Hansen, behavioral philosopher at the University of Southern Denmark and chairman of the Danish Nudging Network. “We have long showers, leave appliances turned on and throw away rubbish as part of daily routines that involve little thought.”
Some of this automatic behavior is not even in our own long-term interests, let alone the planet’s. Hansen points out that dropping litter, for instance, obviously degrades the quality of the shared environment while leaving lights on costs us money.
The problem here is that in some cases there are no property rights with regards to “the shared environment”! Obviously, when the state socializes a certain part of our living area, certain actions become a pressing issue for “us” (read: the state).
On the other hand, if certain individuals leave the lights on longer than bureaucrats say they should, and then pay for the electricity, then obviously that means that they value leaving the lights on longer more than the costs. What exactly is the problem? If electricity becomes more expensive due to decreasing supply, this provides the consumer with natural incentives to save and preserve it, the producer with natural incentives to streamline the extraction process and look for new or alternative souces, and the manufacturer of electric consumer goods with natural incentives to improve the energy efficiency of their products. But the behavioral economists have different ideas.
So why do we do it? The problem is that once a pattern of behavior has formed, it’s difficult to break, especially if the negative repercussions are not experienced immediately, says Professor Robert Cialdini, psychologist and author of “Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion.”
I’ll spare you the part where he talks about our brains going into “autopilot”. It’s clear that these people think that us normal people don’t know what we are doing. No, we just go through life following our daily routine and are too stupid to respond to the fantastic advice our gracious overlords offer us to make our lives better.
Nudges as policy
Let’s move on to some of the implications these nudges may have for actual government policy. David Halpern, director of the UK Behavioural Insights Team (or “Nudge Unit”) is quoted in the article as saying,
Nudges appeal to policy makers because they generally don’t require huge investments and yet have the potential to make a big impact.
Yet it still give the government the power to decide what is desirable and what isn’t, what our future should look like and which of our decisions are wrong. But, anyway, some of the Nudge Unit’s policy recommendations include “the removal of alcohol from conspicuous displays in supermarkets” and “making residents more aware of how much energy others are consuming”.
As for the former, the team seems to have forgotten that nudges aren’t supposed to involve force, because this sure does sound like coercion to me. But the latter recommendation bothers me even more.
Knowing how other people behave is often a potent determinant of our own actions. Energy bills that inform users of how they compare with those on the same street or neighborhood are currently being trialled in parts of the UK, says Halpern.
Um. What? Why is someone else’s electricity bill any of my concern? Why should I have to share this information with others? But, wait, it gets better when Halpern makes a hilarious attempt to explain the system.
“When you get a bill with a long list of numbers, it’s unlikely to mean very much to you. But if you see you’re using much more than your next door neighbor, let’s say, it suddenly becomes personal.”
Hold on, a “long list of numbers”, aka the amount of money we pay for our electricity is “unlikely to mean very much” to me? Are you kidding me? And obviously it becomes more personal when I see my next door neighbor’s energy use on my bill. It is personal!
We humans are hardwired to fall in line with the behavior and attitudes of our immediate peers, and so nudges that exploit this trait are likely to succeed.
“MSRI scans in the lab have revealed that when people are led to believe that their opinions differ from the majority of their contemporaries, it activates the pain center of the brain … so we have a very real incentive to keep in sync with those around us.”
This is just sad..
The good thing about nudging
Now, I know most of what I wrote here sounded extremely negative. This is because most of what was written in this article was, in my opinion, arrogant, bordering on the megalomaniac. But I don’t want to give off the impression that I’m entirely against the concept.
First of all, I’m sure that nudging can influence people’s behavior, at least on the short term. My problem is with government using it as a policy tool. If, for example, Walmart can cut down on its cleaning costs by nudging people towards the nearest bins, then obviously I have no problem with this.
Secondly, if faced with a choice between either the current methods the state employs to alter our behavior, and the replacement thereof by a system of “nudging”, then I would not think twice and go for the latter. There’s no question that, if it’s between only brute force and only nudging, then nudging is many times less intrusive in our lives. However, if we can take history as our guide, that’s not how it’s going to play out if/when the state begins to embrace nudging as a policy tool. In practice, the state will use both. I for one do not look forward to a future where we have the government imposing the vision of the fashionable interest group of the day on our society through both the use of force and the manipulation of our surroundings. One nudge at a time, we will be pushed further on the road to serfdom.