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Nudge is what push is not
Trusting nudges

Nudge is what push is not

In recent years, several countries have been drawn to nudges to makes progress on pressing social problems as these do not cost a great deal.

Sudhirendar Sharma

Nudge, first as a creative hypothesis and later as a compulsive policy prescription, has come a long way since a housefly imprint in the loo pots at Amsterdam Schipol Airport dissuaded millions to avoid unwarranted spillage, by targeting the elusive fly instead. Partnering with fellow economist Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein took the little-pot experiment to dizzy heights in their pioneering work Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, published in 2008, which helped the subject of behavioural economics gain unparalleled political traction, and earned Thaler an Economics Noble Prize in 2017. Applied to influence public behaviour, a nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that helps people opt for change without any significant economic incentives. An alarm is a nudge, and so is a warning and a recommendation.
In recent years, several countries have been drawn to nudges to makes progress on pressing social problems as these do not cost a great deal. Dozens of countries including Australia, France, Canada, UK and Germany have constituted their behavioural science teams whose work has reportedly helped reduce poverty, improve public health, and help clean the environment. Sunstein himself led one such team in the White House from 2009 to 2012. But nudge as a process of social change has accumulated its share of criticism, charged for diminishing autonomy, threatening dignity, and violating liberties. Nudging has also been criticized for being short-term politically motivated initiatives at the cost of long-term behavioural changes.
Trusting Nudges is the outcome of surveys conducted in as many as 17 countries to understand why nudges are sometimes considered a form of manipulation and are therefore rejected for being in pursuit of illegitimate goals. Across countries, however, there is the consistency of acceptance for nudges that are designed to promote health, safety, and environmental protection. Cultural orientation and political lineage are known to play a significant role in a public response to nudges. For instance, only a small majority will accept automatic change of women’s last names to that of their husband after marriage whereas a call that requires chain restaurants to tag calorie labels on their products is sure to win overwhelming support. It may seem simple but in reality, there are many a slip between acceptance and rejection of nudges, as choice architecture is often motivated with some form of unavoidable paternalism.
Findings from their multi-country surveys have helped Sunstein and Reisch to conclude that nudges oscillate between comparative receptivity and comparative skepticism, driven by factors like age variations, cultural background, cognitive ability, political orientation, and trust in government. There is no one size that fits all. Considered covert, manipulative, and based on excessive trust in government, growing misconception about nudges have led many to believe that these are unlikely to solve large problems. However, the authors are convinced that nudges remain a way forward to maximize social welfare.
To overcome bias and inertia, a list of guiding principles to frame a Bill of Rights for Nudging have been proposed. Trusting Nudges is a timely contribution for prudent policy-making, else governmental push – for toilets under Swachh Bharat Mission – will get counted as nudge. One of the guiding principles of the proposed Bill states ‘nudges must not manipulate people’ in staking unsubstantiated claims. For those who have followed nudge hypothesis, this book is a welcome addition to a growing literature on the subject that captures citizen’s central concerns in legitimizing the role of nudges in civic life.
Trusting Nudges
by Cass R. Sunstein and Lucia A. Reisch
Routledge, UK
Extent: 145, Price: US$ 39.95
(First published in the Hindu BusinessLine, issue dated Oct 21, 2019.)

(Sudhirendar Sharma is a writer on development issues based in New Delhi, India)