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Professor of Geography at Aberystwyth University

Nudge, Ethics and Oxymorons

By Jessica Pykett

In a new research article published this week, prominent critic of ‘nudging’, psychologist, Gerd Girgerenzer effectively casts doubt on the several decades of behavioural economic evidence which has shaped the behaviour change agenda public policy in countries such as the UK, USA, Australia, Denmark, the Netherlands, Singapore.

In the article published in Review of Philosophy and Psychology, Girgerenzer argues that behavioural economic research debunking ‘rational economic man’ and proclaiming humanity’s essential irrationality and bias has itself been guilty of several biases. It is based on a “bias for people’s biases” or confirmation bias; a selective reporting of research which does not fully take into account the ways in which narrow economic experiments present information to research participants. For instance, it shows a “high confidence in overconfidence” in suggesting that people make systematic errors in their calculations of risk (overestimating small ones and underestimating larger risks).  As such, he identifies a further “individualistic’ bias” inherent in the libertarian paternalist programme underpinning nudges. This, he argues fails to take properly into account the ecological nature of rationality.  At the very least, the sum effect of his intervention is to show just how hotly debated the shifting sciences of human behaviour are.

Girgerenzer’s concerns are shared by a programme of research which political geographers at Birmingham and Aberystwyth Universities have been involved for the past 7 years.  This research too has questioned the pessimistic sense that humans are driven by neural processes which exist only beyond cognition. Taking this position suggests that people are somehow uneducable (unable, in Girgerenzer’s words, to become “risk-savvy”), and that a cadre of ‘psychocracts’ must necessarily therefore intervene to pre-empt our predictable behavioural biases. This unrealistically downplays the long-term historical and wide-scale geographical contexts which shape social practices, behaviour and human action.

Significant concerns too have been expressed by media commentators, academics and politicians regarding the potential long term and population level effects of adopting a narrowly behavioural approach to governance informed by an enthusiasm for ‘nudging’, as indicated in the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee report on Behaviour Change in 2011.

More recently, Baroness Sherlock raised questions in parliament regarding the ethics of a pilot Randomised Control Trial used in a ‘behaviour change’ intervention in Job Centre Plus, highlighting concerns about a form of policy development which operates in an experimental mode.

Over the past ten years public policy makers have been drawing on a more extensive set of knowledges and techniques aimed at developing behaviour change approaches to both seemingly intractable and everyday policy issues. Ending the apparent monopoly of neoclassical economics on policy rationale, implementation and evaluation, insights from behavioural economics, psychology, neuroscience, marketing and design have become increasingly influential.  Such insights have the potential to radically shape the reflexive relationships we have with our brains and our sense of ‘self’ as much as the relationship between state and citizen, or business and consumer.

I recently co-organised an ESRC-funded seminar ‘Silver Bullets Need a Careful Aim: Dilemmas in Applying Behavioural Insights’. Academics from human geography, politics, education, and social policy came together with marketing and advertising executives, third sector organisations and policy makers from the Ministry of Justice, HMRC, Health and Safety Executive and Scottish Government to discuss the ethical implications of these behavioural insights in use in policy and practice in a wide range of sectors.

Held at the RSA, where the notion of an emerging ‘Brain Culture’ has been under discussion for some years, the seminar was aimed at finding some common ground between critics of the behaviour change agenda and practitioners and policy makers charged with finding behavioural solutions to problems. As my co-organiser, Steven Johnson from Collaborative Change observed, there is often a false distinction drawn between academic commentators, particularly critics, and those working directly on behaviour change initiatives.

Whilst for many in the emerging cottage industry of behaviour change agencies and consultants such as Steven, ‘challenging the utilitarian foundations of our clients is not a good business plan’, this does not mean that they adopt behavioural science approaches to behaviour change unthinkingly or uncritically.

Throughout the seminar, we heard from market researchers, consultants and advertisers, whose work has been undoubtedly influenced by the behavioural economic focus on ‘irrational’ behaviours, cognitive bias, and mental shortcuts which shape our decision-making errors. But so too are such practitioners sensitive to the need to question the ethical foundations of their clients’ end goals, the broader systems in which they are working and the wider structural constraints on people’s everyday decisions and behaviours.

For instance, Luke Perry from Jigsaw Research argued for an industry level response to the use of subconscious nudges in marketing and advertising.  Leigh Caldwell from The Irrational Agency, focused on what we mean by preferences and people’s best interests, challenging the focus of behavioural economics on what we can do to ‘fix’ people’s behavioural mistakes.  He called for a new ethical manifesto for market researchers and pointed towards the need for professional and trusted institutions to better understand and champion consumer interests, a role arguably played by organisations such as Which and Citizens Advice. Rory Sutherland, Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group and consummate ‘ad man’ shared his huge enthusiasm for behavioural economic insights and spoke about how these have changed the nature of his own organisation and the founding of Ogilvy Change, a global behaviour change consultancy. Widening the range of problems that advertising can deal with (outside of just selling stuff) has been an important unintended consequence of the popularisation of behavioural economics. For Rory, the consumer world has been the unexpected and unsung test-bed of behavioural economic research for many decades.

Nonetheless, in order to properly understand the ethical stakes at play in pursuing behavioural forms of governance, we must necessarily question the foundations of this agenda in the first place. Professor David Chandler from the University of Westminster duly provoked us to question the degree to which interference in private choice making (in a context in which we are surrounded by pre-existing ‘choice architectures’) can ever be justified. It is only, he argued, by taking a step back from the ethical dilemmas posed in designing behaviour change interventions, that we can adequately address the political effects of libertarian paternalist policies which are at once too paternalist and too obsessed with free choice. Such policies rely too heavily, says Chandler, on the mastery of science to dominate and govern a world which is by its very nature complex and emergent. Ignoring these complex socio-technical systems in favour of a set of behavioural economic insights which can only ‘govern backwards’ reduces the global problems we face to cognitive errors of the mind.

Dr Adam Oliver (LSE) on the other hand, described how redesigning contexts of decision making was central to the behaviour change agenda. Whilst behavioural economics may have been somewhat oversold as a solution to a plethora of policy problems, he sees it has providing a solid grounding for enabling people to make the decisions they would want to, if given the chance to deliberate their preferences.  Drawing out distinctions between nudges and other forms of intervention is an important part of identifying whether policies might be politically acceptable. In presenting his paper on, Oliver showed how behavioural economics could inform policies which might be coercive or more regulatory than libertarian, and argued that precision over the nature of such interventions should inform our debates over their ethical importance.

There is a clear appetite to attend to the ethical dilemmas posed by behaviour change, and specifically to nudging – as well as to stand back and critically evaluate the political rationales behind this agenda and its potential democratic consequences. For some organisations, guiding ethical principals are arguably long overdue, for others, a neat set of ‘ethical guidelines’ would not adequately deal with the magnitude of concerns and considerations that need to be taken into account in designing effective and publically acceptable policies and interventions.

Whilst Girgerenzer’s research should trouble proponents of libertarian paternalism, it remains to be seen how much the runaway enthusiasm for the behaviour change agenda might be unsettled by his challenge to its evidential basis. In the meantime, it is surely wise to maintain a healthy and sceptical dialogue with enthusiasts for behaviour change interventions in order to pause to consider both the evidence on which these are based and their potential consequences for citizens, and society.

statesand society. and society.meantime, it is surely wise to maintain a healthy and sceptical dialogue with enthusiasts for behaviour change interventions in order to pause to consider both the evidence on which these are based and their potential consequences for citizens, states and society.


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