Can behavioural science help us to resist temptation? Governing by nudges

Behaviour Change tactics are often aimed at encouraging citizens to resist various temptations associated with over-consumption (e.g. of unhealthy food, cigarettes, carbon, credit). In our research we have argued that much more attention needs to be paid to the unintended consequences of nudge tactics as they re-configure the politics and ethics of government intervention, the ‘time-spaces’ of decision making and our conceptions of the human subject itself.

It is widely recognised that governments have always been in the business of changing behaviour. But the more recent growth in enthusiasm for nudge tactics based on a loose political philosophy of ‘soft’ or ‘libertarian’ paternalism raises new questions about policy tools and levers intended to both improve welfare and increase freedom of choice.  Furthermore, given the new found dominance of psychological and behavioural science knowledges, the Behaviour Change agenda demands that we interrogate what counts as research evidence in the justification of new policy techniques.

The House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee Inquiry on Behaviour Change reported in 2011 that not enough was known about how governments can change or influence behaviour at a population level; most of the available research is conducted exclusively on individuals, and it is simply inadequate to aggregate these findings up to social groups, communities and whole nations.  Our research project, ‘The time-spaces of soft paternalism’, conducted by Human Geographers at Aberystwyth University and funded by the Leverhulme Trust for 3 years, has examined precisely the question of the underlying principles and collective effects of the Behaviour Change agenda in the UK. Far from a neutral set of benign policy techniques which can be deployed by parties of any political persuasion, our research has found a concerted movement towards the deployment of sophisticated psychological powers in order to govern individual and societal ‘temptations’. These research insights can be usefully split into three headings:

The politics and ethics of government intervention

There are several different nudge techniques which fall along a spectrum of political and ethical acceptability. These range from psychographic and geodemographic profiling in social marketing campaigns, design initiatives focussing on spatial arrangements (e.g. the layout of school canteens), to administrative techniques that attempt to encourage optimal behaviours (e.g. presumed and differed consent in organ donation schemes; favourable default positions on company pension options).  Clearly some are aimed at compensating for our all too human behavioural flaws and apparently self-defeating behaviours, whilst others are intended to cultivate a more reflective approach to reasoned and reasonable decision making.  Hence, these distinct typologies of nudge require not only strategies for enabling, engaging, exemplifying and encouraging more ‘sensible’ behaviours, but they also necessitate ‘ethical proofing’.  This requires policy makers and indeed politicians to build ethical considerations into Behaviour Change initiatives from the outset.  Though not a comprehensive list, a starting point would be to judge each nudge from the perspective of:

(a)    its openness or degree of consent secured – how far are individuals and society aware of any attempts to change their behaviours, through subtle environmental or administrative cues?

(b)   its democratic credentials – how far are citizens involved in actively shaping the contexts in which they make decisions (for instance, global energy markets). Are opportunities given for public deliberation on the very nature of the social goods to be promoted through nudges? How can the nudger be held accountable in a democratic forum (whether the nudger is government or otherwise)?

(c)    its effects on personal responsibility – is it indeed fair to assert that actors living in unequal contexts should be held personally responsible for the behaviour in question? Is it fair to ask people on vastly different incomes to save, even proportionately, for their pensions?

 The ‘time-spaces’ of decision making

Secondly, Behaviour Change policies and initiatives have drawn on academic disciplines which remain far from uncontested.  It has been argued, for instance, that the behavioural economic and psychological science approaches are based on narrow assumptions about the very ‘time-spaces’ of decision making. To clarify, on the one hand, such disciplines re-imagine decision-making as a highly immediate, responsive and impulsive activity hampered by cognitive flaws which limit our abilities to make long-term decisions. And on the other hand, they are primarily concerned with decision-making which takes place at a highly localised scale – one of Thaler and Sunstein’s (2008) famous examples being to encourage healthy eating by placing fruit at eye-level. In promoting an account of decision-making as both immediate and proximate, attention is drawn away from the wider contexts which frame decisions.  There is little attention paid, therefore, to the way in which decisions can be limited by socio-economic contexts, unequal access to the resources and knowledges required to make decisions, and the much longer running historical contexts in which decisions are ascribed as ‘sensible’. Nudges can therefore be guilty of de-historicising the role that culture, society, economic circumstance and the state have played in shaping behavioural norms and constructing those temptations to be resisted.  Hence, notions of willingness, harm, choice, welfare, health, environmental awareness, wealth and happiness are divorced from the very political processes of norm-formation which make certain behaviours acceptable and others transgressive. Again, these insights urge us to question what kind of research counts as evidence to be used in designing Behaviour Change policies, and raises the need to widen the scope of research expertise beyond the behavioural sciences.  There is also a need to be wary of any account of decision making which appears to equate freedom, and associated democratic rights, with acts of choice, since choice is no guarantor of substantive freedom.

 

Conceptions of the human subject

Following from these principles of decision making are novel claims about the human condition as characterised by a sense of irrationality, flaws and inherent biases in thinking processes.  But we must also consider the cumulative effect of Behaviour Change policy initiatives as they become more commonplace in contemporary UK policy making.  In deconstructing ‘homo economicus’ on which classical decision theories were arguably based, and replacing this conception with those derived from psychological knowledges, nudges risk creating an ‘irrational underclass’ of people judged to be too weak willed to behave appropriately.  Nudges tend to demote the emotional or inexpert drivers of decision making as problems to be overcome. In targeting particular segmented social groups, they can have the affect of stigmatising certain people as less than rational and seemingly uneducable. In creating decision-making environments intended to be ‘fool-proof’, nudges may indeed contribute to the cultivation of fools. Citizens may develop a more acute sense of vulnerability which reduces their abilities to hold governments and other nudgers to account. In addition, by focussing on individual behaviours, nudges reframe social problems as issues of psychological pathology. This limits the ethical and political scope for strong governmental action in the spheres of social and spatial inequalities – and encourages ‘bite sized’ discrete policy remedies for structural problems.  Finally, in their focus on rationalising the irrational aspects of decision making and compensating for the emotional drivers of behaviour, Behaviour Change policies can have unequally gendered effects, subordinating the female citizen to a masculinist rational frame. This makes assumptions about both the determinants of decision making and the selective acceptability of social goods or norms to be cultivated through nudges. It is these social goods and norms which, in a democracy, should never be beyond question.

Taking a much broader view of the population-wide political and ethical consequences of policies based on behavioural insights provides us with a difficult set of questions which require sustained political debate.  The sometime confusion of nudges as an end rather than a means closes down this debate. Critical social science research can therefore illuminate the need for Parliamentarians to maintain a healthy scepticism of the scientific claims which underpin behaviour change. For whilst nudging gives government a toolkit for producing ‘sensible’ citizens, nudges do not get us any closer to the question of how we should live nor which temptations should be governed.

Jessica

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One response to “Can behavioural science help us to resist temptation? Governing by nudges

  1. Pingback: The Gambler | Transforming Behaviours

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