The Making of Nudge Theory

How did the word ‘nudge’ get to be its own theory? Is it not simply a suggestion, a physical gesture, something which comes before a wink?

Of course these questions have been posed by numerous commentators since the publication of Nudge in 2008, and all the jokes have been made. But the important question remains: would there indeed have been a Behavioural Insights Team (aka Nudge Unit), a new health behaviours research centre at Cambridge University, a House of Lords Inquiry into Behaviour Change, if the publishers of Nudge had not made the wise commercial suggestion that Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein not entitle their best seller ‘Libertarian Paternalism’ as apparently originally conceived.  Would anyone have taken any notice if it had been called something mundane like ‘An introduction to Behavioural Economics’ (with apologies to author Nick Wilkinson for what may well be an excellent book)?

Surely the media love-in with Nudge theory would not have materialised in this case – the ideas being simply ‘too academic’ for our sensitive eyes and ears.

Maybe I am just too obsessed with the elevation of Nudge to truth status, scientific discipline and social panacea, because since 2008 I have been working on a research project examining its politics and ethics. But it does seem hard to turn on the radio these days without somebody (often Evan Davies) heralding yet more novel insights that Nudge offers on the decidedly old problem of understanding  human behaviour.  We must listen to academics extolling the virtues of this novel approach to policy making – which both costs less and promotes human happiness! Not only can it encourage organ donation and more speedy tax-paying, but it can also help people give up smoking, become less obese, save the environment and famously, help men to pee more accurately.

But can Nudge theory really be this versatile and this marvellous?

What is most concerning is that I don’t hear any researchers offering alternative viewpoints on the political value of the Nudge theory. Rather, they seem busy trying to get onto the advisory boards of various Behaviour Change research networks, centres and institutes – perhaps in order to fulfil their duties to serve policy-makers in their research and to secure research ‘impact’ – now a pre-requisite of almost any research funding in an increasingly competitive funding environment.

I am all in favour of communicating research findings beyond a narrow circle of my academic friends, and ensuring that publically-funded research is worthwhile; contributing to the social good. But Nudge theory cannot claim this without interrogation. Nudge theory cannot help us to collectively decide on what that social good is. And its model of human behaviour is entirely reductive, denying any place for political agency, contestation or deliberation.  For that, we need to champion diverse approaches from the arts, humanities and social sciences.

Bunsen Beaker Plug and PlaySo whilst the House of Lords Inquiry recommended the appointment of a Chief Social Scientist, this has since been narrowed in the Government’s response published this week by that very Nudge Unit, who recommend the appointment focus on “Social Scientists within departments on behavioural science”. But behavioural science simply is not the sum total of social science, and the methods, assumptions and theoretical frameworks which make behavioural science count as plausible evidence for policy making are not shared by social scientists as a whole. Behavioural approaches still cannot tell us enough as a society about either the cumulative, long term effect of nudges on populations, specific social groups and the democratic polity, nor about the missteps we are making in terms of narrowing human agency to a set of automated, foolish and irrational psychological responses to various stimuli.

These blind spots were brought home to me when my own efforts to disseminate research to a non-academic audience – a magazine on science topics for Parliamentarians – was met with a disturbingly simplistic disdain for my ‘soft science’, academic jargon and a failure to specify a ‘sample size’. Instead, my unsubstantiated claims were best suited to the ‘mere’ journalism of a Sunday newspaper rather than a prestigious academic tome.

Leaving aside the fact that this soft (read ‘social’) science research was all previously published in international peer-reviewed journals, the incident confirmed the uphill struggle that social scientists beyond the behaviouralist frame have to bear in order to secure the ear of policy makers looking for sample sizes, tested models and cool hard facts that stand in for a wider understanding of the nature of the human condition, and issues of ethics and power in political decision-making.

No wonder then that researchers even from the discipline of political science are now turning to bio-medical methods such as Randomized Control Trials to ‘prove’ their theories, rather than asking the political questions that one might expect of researchers of politics. Who is left to interrogate a Nudge theory which itself explicitly aims to change the very behaviours, attitudes and ‘mindspaces’ of citizens?

So is Nudge theory a mere fabrication of a media-driven enthusiasm for catchy mnemonics, a genuine popular respect for behavioural economics, or is it in fact a political project (the oh-so jargony, “Libertarian Paternalism”) which allows its protagonists to justify all manner of cost-cutting and yet ‘welfare-enhancing’ initiatives? And where is the evidence that reducing the size of government whilst increasing its psychological infrastructures actually improves welfare, and for whom?

No , Nudge theory is not, as the authors claim, a set of policy tools to accomplish the ‘real third way’. It is a forth way: a political project which uses the methods of neoliberal thinking to counter those very excesses engendered by neoliberal culture, and in doing so reframes the flawed citizen as architect of her own self-defeat.




5 responses to “The Making of Nudge Theory

  1. I think calling a book “Libertarian Paternalism” would not really have gone down too well with the feminists, as it aligns masculinity with paternality, (which itself is theoretically flawed). Furthermore, far from enabling freedom, Libertarian Paternalism still emphasises a society that is shaped by the state and therefore perpetuates inequality and a lack of freedom. Nudge perhaps isn’t as revolutionary as it is claimed, because it’s not about solutions from the bottom-up.

  2. Katherine Jones

    Really enjoyed your post Jessica, particularly the wonderful last line which chimed a lot with Erik Swyngedouw’s argument re the Janus face of governance. Nudge does appear to be another way of getting people to internalize the responsibility for numerous things that are in fact not truly within their control.

    You also make some very poignant points about the nature of research, funding, and attitudes towards social science. I do wonder sometimes whether as Jon Lovering suggested, policy is in fact the tail wagging the dog of research. Bit of a depressing thought really, and I hope it’s not always true.

    As a side note, I just came across this New Scientist article today which takes a more critical academic view on nudge:

    • Interesting opinion piece Katherine. It references Suzanne Mettler’s argument that “libertarian paternalism treats people as consumers rather than citizens” and serves to ‘submerge’ the state (in effect hiding the presence and role of the state in the disbursement of ‘benefits’ to the poor but substantially to the wealthy) and as such depoliticises and distances people from the decision making processes and practices of government and over emphasises the significance of market mechanisms as a means for making decisions. All reasonable as a critique of nudging and behavioural economics as panacea.

      But I’m not entirely convinced by the authors argument that a tweaked and more ‘perfect knowledge’ form of democracy reveals “people’s real interests and how to advance them” as some sort of inevitable and rationale outcome. It seems one of the things behavioural economics DOES reveal is that homo economicus is an illusion. However, behavioural economics then both claims a capacity to understand why (the mechanisms by which) irrational (or non-utility maximising) decisions are reached by individuals and then through the logic of nudge etc seems to set out to correct for a population of homo irrationalis, to produce subjects that better fit the market model. That is not necessarily the intent but seems to be an effect.

      Perversely I see a parallel discourses in this article where some sort of reified rational man is constructed as the perfect subject citizen. So if only “ordinary people” have access to enough knowledge, are embedded in better systems of knowledge exchange, and utilise their knowledge to be involved more fully in political decision making processes then their ‘real interests’ will be protected and advanced. Which in turn, as always, provokes questions about who decides what is the right sort of knowledge and who designs the systems of knowledge exchange and decision making, and who utilises those systems to advance the interests of “ordinary people”. In some ways I wonder if this cautionary critique of nudge and technocracy has more similarities to it than it at first appears…

  3. I wouldn’t be very concerned about your work being rejected from a journal designed for Parliamentarians and their staff – it says a great deal more about them than your work.

    Speaking as both a passionate social scientist and someone who has held (and hopefully will hold again) public office, and guided the electoral prospects of many candidates, social science is very important to us, though we make a fine show of pretending it is not. There’s two reasons for this:

    1) All public policy owes more to social, soft, pansy, or whatever science you choose to call that which straddles the faculty of social sciences and faculty of arts – because the type of science that relies on numbers and an independent reality that you can cross reference against has a habit of throwing up inconvenient ‘facts’ – whereas social, soft, pansy or whatever, sciences allow you to think, feel, speak and draft policy in a manner that more closely represents the experience of being alive, and it therefore means more in electoral terms.

    2) You must never, ever, ever give point 1) voice in front of journalists, the opposition…or really anybody…because unlike a style of science that can be condensed to numbers, social science cannot easily be put into sound bites, but can easily be represented by people like me as being incoherent and distanced from the experience of ‘everyday people.’ And you will lose your election.

    It’s a complete misrepresentation of everything that social scientists stand for, try to do and the value that they could bring to public debates – but politicians are always looking over their shoulder for somebody to twist their words in an unexpected way. With numbers that’s very hard to do; with the words of a social scientists, it is all too easy.

    It’s not learning that lesson fast enough that got me on the second page of my local newspaper accused of being a pornographer, and the reason why a very silly quote I gave about lawnmowers and sat nav to the Leicester Mercury ended up in every national newspaper bar the Daily Sport.

    But despite all that, most politicians can be influenced more by social science than hard science – so long as you get in right at the start of the process, and help set the framework through which the entire policy is conceived (Anthony Giddens is/was probably the best exponent of this) and that means party politics, either directly or through a think tank. I know most social scientists are very, very precious about their work and would regard any kind of party political work as the equivalent of an academic pound shop, but they need to grow up.

    Essentially I think that social scientists should be content to feed into policy formation in the background and then fade away before it sees the light of day, otherwise someone like me will use you as a punchbag to win elections.

    It ain’t right, but it’s what happens.

  4. Pingback: The Gambler | Transforming Behaviours

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s