Nudging misunderstood

Nudging (or as some seem to have dubbed it ‘Nudge Theory’) is booming and inevitably there are critics. We can hardly deny that there are downsides to some aspects of nudges, and that they are not appropriate in all situations or cases. Acknowledged, for certain. The point in such cases is not to discard nudging, but to find the situations in which it can and in what way it can be helpful.

In other words, we encourage people to adopt a critical stance to the initial phase of using nudges, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Test and see if it works before diving head-first into the dark. Most critique that points towards this direction is very useful and completely valid but…

… but there is this category of comments on nudging (and most importantly the use of it by governments) that is not only completely useless (it does nothing to help suggest how to improve or avoid problems with nudging) but even worse, it sketches a completely wrong picture of what nudges are! I will try to explain some misconceptions in this and upcoming posts, by means of examples. Let’s start off with a comment from the British Telegraph. It states:

“The taxman claims to have gained an extra £210m from taxpayers by using controversial “nudge” tactics that predict how people will respond to official communications and encourage them to make the “right” response. In Whitehall, your financial decisions are being been carefully predicted and manipulated by psychologists as part of the Government’s controversial Behavioural Insights team – the so-called “nudge” unit. A large-scale trial involving 100,000 taxpayers is attempting to “pinpoint the exact words and concepts” that make people more likely to pay their taxes.

HMRC remains tight-lipped about the exact psychological tricks used by the Behavioural Insights team, saying that too much information would compromise the plan’s effectiveness….”

(Telegraph, 9th of October 2014, Kate Palmer, “psychology and ‘nudges’: Five tricks the taxman uses to make you pay 210m pound extra”. Source (emphasis added by blog author))

Before I start critiquing this text, I want to invite everyone to read the full article (you can read it by clicking the link below the quote). If anything, it is interesting material, nicely written, and certainly quite interesting if you want to know more about nudges and their potential. Please note, however, that nearly all examples used in this article are not nudges. Sending people letters asking them to pay taxes… is not nudging. It is requesting. And is it really so weird that the government urgently requests you to pay what you are due, and else uses legal means to persuade you otherwise? Really, I thought that legal means were quite ok to be used by the government! If not them, who else is going to enforce the rules?

Anyway, time to make some remarks about the quoted text above, as the most urgent misunderstandings are to be found in there.

The first issue I have against this text is that it assumes that it is a bad thing that the government expects (and wants to help) people to pay their taxes. The (bad) government is using so called controversial methods (this is debatable but OK) to ‘make people pay’ their taxes. In all honesty I cannot see what is wrong about this effort. Tax money is being used for public services, and yes, you are supposed to pay them. If you are not, then possibly you’ll come in contact with governmental sanctions. But then, if you are avoiding them, you are making other people pay for you, so I really do not feel sorry for you that much. The point is, the government is not doing a ‘bad’ thing by ‘making’ people pay their taxes, they are simply trying more efficient ways of collecting what we all collectively decided to give in the first place! If you disagree with this practice, it is not a disagreement with nudging per se, but with the general social system in total.

Secondly, we get the impression that these scheming scientists of the HMRC are plotting against us, by means of secret ‘psychological tricks’. Let me get this straight: nudges are not tricks. They are no deceit, or covert ways of forcing people to do what government wants. A nudge is a change in the environment of the decision-maker, that suggests a direction. This choice architecture, or ‘environment of decision-makers’ is always present, regardless whether there are psychologists at the Home Office plotting evil schemes to rob us of our tax money! Nudges are only adjustments to decision-environments that can help people make certain choices. Think of a list of choices where one has to tick a box. Very often one box is already ticked, and this would be the default option. This would be a ‘nudge’ into that direction. Changing which option is checked in advance is hardly a ‘psychological trick’ that will force our behaviour into certain directions, is it?

Thirdly, running experiments with novel ideas is something that scientists do on purpose. We do not blindly follow an idea, but we test it. The government also takes this careful approach and tests things. In order to do so, however, they will have to try a few versions, and only then can they say which version is most efficient, effective, and least detrimental to tax payers.

What is the problem with articles such as these is that they make nudging sound like something it is not. Nudging is not brainwashing. In fact, it does nothing to coerce people, as this is the entire essence of nudging: it does not affect people’s autonomy (freedom of choice). If something is proclaimed a nudge, but in reality it actively limits a person’s choices, then it is not a nudge. Of course, in terms of taxes, there is an extra layer, because, YES, the government is forcing you to pay up. But not with nudges. It does the forcing with rules and regulations. The nudges are merely in place to make it easier for people to do the right thing, in this case pay your taxes. And a lot of people can be helped with tax money, so it really is quite OK to pay them.

* Note: I do not want to offend the author of the Telegraph article. As said above, it is an interesting piece that if anything purveys that many people do not understand what nudging is all about. The article is therefore an excellent but alarming indicator that scientists and policy-makers have a lot of work to do in making it more clear and being more open about what we are doing. If people see it differently and feel coerced, then it is our task to make it more clear that nudges are not coercing, and definitely not limiting. Clearly, for at least ms Palmer and her audience we have failed to purvey this message! We should do better… 

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