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.
So 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.