Nudging the Issue
News here in the UK that the prime minister, David Cameron, has established a 'behavioural insight' team, led by the policy advisor David Halpern, to find ways to implement the ideas of behavioural psychologist Richard Thaler, who is also working with the unit.
Thaler is, together with Cass Sunstein, the author of Nudge, a study of ways people can be manipulated to behave in more socially harmonious and beneficial ways through small, fun interventions. Putting a picture of a fly on a urinal, for example, nudges people to pee more in the urinal, and less on the floor. Creating bins that make a funny noise when you drop things into them encourages people to put more rubbish into bins.
And so on!
There are other, more far-reaching ways you can use behavioural psychology to affect public policy. For example, if you present a policy decision to citizens, you could either have them tick a box to sign up to it, or tick a box to opt out of it. If you choose the latter option, they are more likely to sign up to it, out of inertia. This has been used to nudge people to choosing voluntary pension contributions.
Thaler and Sunstein call this sort of social manipulation 'libertarian paternalism'. People are still free to choose how to live. But, knowing that people often make bad decisions because of their cognitive biases, governments and companies should structure the choices they present people so that they are nudged to make choices in their long-term optimal interest.
There are two ripostes to this approach:
1) It doesn't really work on anything significant, and getting people to pee in urinals, while valuable, is not deeply socially transformative.
2) Governments should not try to manipulate the poor decision-making processes of the masses, even if it is for 'good' aims. Who is to say the aims are good?
The same sort of manipulation techniques could just as easily be used by corporations for their own short-term profit - just as tobacco companies used the psychological techniques of Edward Bernays, nephew of Freud and the father of PR (and arguably the grand-father of nudge), to sell their cigarettes. It could also easily be used by a militaristic or fascistic government to nudge the people to war (see the video below).
The alternative approach to Nudge has been called Think. It's a bit more old fashioned - you try to explain things to people to allow them to make a more free, informed and rational decision. Crazy idea!
And a middle ground between Nudge and Think has been suggested by the RSA, called Steer: you nudge people towards decisions, but you explain how you are doing it. The Derren Brown approach to politics, in other words - 'I just tricked you, but here's how I did it'.
Do we really need the government to spend our money on this? Is the Tory Party's big idea really to manipulate our poor decision-making processes? Do we rationally agree to join the Big Society, or we're simply nudged into it?