Evidence Based Policy: A Nudge in the Wrong Direction?

by endlesspsych

By Keir Liddle

Politicians are, by and large, not scientists. Indeed, in the UK, there is only one former scientist currently sitting as an MP (perhaps understandably, as one imagines that science is not only more important than politics but probably more interesting also), Julian Huppert, Lib Dem.  Huppert has called for politicians to play more than lip service to the importance of scientific proof, and said that career politicians lacked the basic skills required to assess and understand science.

It is perhaps not surprising that the BMJ has reacted with concern and skepticism that David Cameron has adopted the ideals of ‘libertarian paternalism’ as supported by the science and research outlined in Richard Thayler and Cass  Sunsteins’ book Nudge, already popular with the Obama administration and his team of superstar behavioural scientists.

But what are ‘nudges’? How, why, where, and on who do they work?

Nudges, put simply, are a means of subtly encouraging people to make the choices you (as a policy maker) want them to. This can range from putting a line in a shopping trolley to divide fruit and veg from other shopping (which increases the amount of fruit and veg bought by 70%)  to suggesting that congestion could be eased at tube stations by painting coloured feet on the ground for passengers to follow in and out. Nudges have also been employed in the UK already in Barnet to reduce littering.

The concept of nudging builds upon the power and relevance of incentives — using sticks and carrots to change behaviour. The argument is that the key lesson from the insights of cognitive psychology need to be applied by designing interventions that recognise that citizens are boundedly rational decision-makers. The idea of bounded rationality states that human beings’ decision making abilities are bounded and constrained by the limits of human cognition. Thus, we are all limited in how rationally we can make decisions. Nudging also involves the implementation of a ‘choice architecture’  that allows policy makers to understand that people have a default option that they will revert to in the absence of strong signals. Feedback must also be employed in a timely and effective way, so that people understand their implications of their actions.

Nudging is based upon reasonably sound principles derived in cognitive psychology, and builds on work done by the likes of Robert Cialdini, Dan Ariely and the only psychologist to win a Nobel Prize, Daniel Kahneman. Ultimately, however, I think that the term “nudge” may be being used to encompass a broader range of interventions than perhaps might perhaps make sense — potentially for political reasons.

There is a case advanced against nudges in the BMJ in this article. It is fairly balanced, although it proclaims in one paragraph that nudging certainly works (in a negative form via food and alcohol advertising) then, a few paragraphs later, proclaiming that the evidence base for nudging (in a positive sense) is weak. This grates with me slightly; accepting that something can work as a negative yet not as a positive seems to me to be loading the argument against nudges rather than systematically reviewing the available evidence. In fairness, such a systematic review or synthesis would be an almost Herculean task, given that the range and diversity of proposed ‘nudge’ interventions that exist would make selecting appropriate inclusion and exclusion criteria difficult, to say the least. It also doesn’t help that the definition of a nudge is somewhat elastic, as pointed out in this article.

Much of the concern seems to stem from the idea that nudges, rather than being used to supplement exisiting regulatory and public health initiatives, would come to replace them. Given that the coalition is employing massive cuts, entering an age of austerity in public spending, this is perhaps not a concern that should be ignored. While there is some evidence to suggest nudges may be effective, there is little or no research comparing nudges with regulatory interventions. To replace regulations with nudges could be disastrous in a public health context.

In an American c0ntext, nudges seem more exciting and perhaps necessary, as they allow a way for the government to try and intervene in their citizens’ lives without them appearing to be nannying them or attacking their precious freedoms. Yet, in a British context, they should probably only be considered as an addition to current policy initiatives, and not in any way be considered a cheap and cheerful alternative.