Were we nudged or budged?

By Helena Cain

Tuesday November 9, 2021

brain being poked
Today, when we manage change, we draw on nudges to help people. (Emma Bemrose/Private Media)

Behavioural Economics ‘nudges’ are relatively new and scientific as well as very old and common sense. If you’re a parent, you’re probably an expert. Helena Cain takes a look at how our governments are using these nudges and asks if, during the pandemic, we’ve been subtly nudged or a bit roughly budged.

A ‘nudge’ is described as anything in the environment that deliberately influences decisions or behaviour. They have their origins in psychology and economics and were made popular by Richard Thaler (Nobel prize winner in Economic Sciences) in the 80s through his book called….. yes, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness.

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While we might be a bit suspicious of the nudges, they are meant to be honourable: a real nudge has to deliver a predictable preference, decision or result without forbidding or punishing other options. Critically, a real nudge respects freedom of choice.

The tactic of the person or entity trying to influence your decisions is to insert nudges into your day as positive reinforcement or indirect suggestion, and if you always manage to escape the supermarket without a few unplanned items, well done to you – because that’s where we think we see nudges applied the most – in influencing our consumer behaviours.

In supermarkets, nudges usually are honourable – they suggest we might love some last-minute chocolate or two-for-the-price-of-one dishwashing tablets, but they don’t forbid us our other choices. Then, when we unpack those groceries, we put the chocolate up high and the fruit at kids’ eye level (nudge) and I might actively choose not to chill the white wine because it’s only Tuesday (self-nudge for 7pm me).

Famous nudges of the early days are the image of the fly on the Schipol Airport urinals (or the ping pong ball in my home loo for my four-year-old) to encourage more focused aim, or flights of stairs painted as piano keys, to encourage people to walk up them rather than use the escalator.

Today, when we manage change, we draw on nudges to help people. A key part of a nudge is that if you want to encourage someone to do something, you make it easy. So we create paths of least resistance, we establish the legitimate benefits, listen to make sure that we’re encouraging them to take a path that they are willing to travel and then support them with structures, tools, templates and workshops that make the decision-making more engaging and the transitions as easy as possible. 

So should we ever worry about the way we are nudged – especially by governments?

I worry a little.

The UK Behavioural Insights Team established the EAST principles – make whatever you want someone to do Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely… surely that can’t be bad?

The Australian Tax Office website tells me they ‘use behavioural insights principles to make it as easy as possible for people to meet their tax and super obligations’. Simpler forms and easier completion and submission processes that take me through a path of least resistance are very welcome. Thank you, ATO. The NSW Behavioural Insights Unit claims to use ‘the latest research about how people really think and act to help NSW government agencies deliver better services to citizens.’ Not bad either.

Then the very well-named Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian government (BETA) within PM&C states on its website that ‘rather than expect citizens to be optimal decision-makers, drawing on behavioural insights ensures policymakers will design policies that go with the grain of human behaviour. For example, citizens may struggle to make choices in their own best interests, such as saving more money. Policymakers can apply behavioural insights that preserve freedom but encourage a different choice — by helping citizens to set a plan to save regularly’.

I am a little put out that a group of strangers assumes that I’m not an optimal decision-maker, that I may struggle to make choices in my own best interests – and then make the assumption for all of us that saving money regularly is the best way to live our lives (I see the irony in that sentence).

Behavioural insights have become a part of many governments, and while a nudge is said to be used to improve societies — to help us make healthier, safer choices — I’m really feeling a bit budged at the moment (I think I just invented a new behavioural insights term).

Nudges to help us make ‘optimal’ decisions during this pandemic include apps that made it easy for us to check in to venues, communication that highlights the value of positive and collective behaviours, cues about the risks and losses if we don’t make ‘optimal’ choices, easy access to anti-bacterial gels in public places, easy access to vaccines, and maybe a bit of rivalry between tribes.

However, if the requirements of a nudge are that they influence choices through positive reinforcement, use indirect suggestion, and respect free choices; and the definition of coercion is the practice of persuading someone to do something by using force or threats – have we been cleverly nudged through this pandemic, are our free choices still intact, without punishment – or has there been a slight budge?

I don’t feel critical, I was probably double-vaxxed before most (because I can be an ‘optimal’ thinker and decision-maker sometimes) but I do feel as if some people would have experienced some heavy-handedness, some feelings of a loss of free choice and maybe a bit of what the New Scientist journal calls ‘benevolent meddling’.

So, I do worry a little. I don’t want any of those heavier-handed persuasion tactics conjured up in closed-door behavioural insights meetings by people who think they can make better choices for me than I can to fall under the guise of honourable nudges. That might normalise them into the future.

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