Nudge – the word versus the concept
Both those pro and against nudging as a tool for behaviour change often have a wrong idea about what nudging really entails. This is firstly because the concept is not easily definable. We’ve tried a bit in previous posts (see for instance this one or that one) to explain the concept but it remains a tricky concept. It is much easier to say what is not a nudge, than to define what is. Taxes, coercion and other means of force – those that take away freedom of choice – are not. Anything else might be a nudge, but not necessarily so. Hence, a lot of conceptual confusion.
However, there may be another reason why not everyone can agree on what is – and what isn’t – a nudge. After all, there is the word nudge itself, and then there is the conceptual meaning that we – in accordance to the initial ideas of Thaler and Sunstein – assume that the word nudge means. However, the official dictionary meaning of nudge is(as far as Webster Merriam is concerned, that is):
1) to touch or push (someone or something) gently
2) to push (someone) gently with your elbow in order to get that person’s attention
3) to encourage (someone) to do something
Possibly, the word has old scandinavian origins, for those interested in etymology.
Nudge: “to push slightly with the elbow,” 1670s, perhaps from Scandinavian (compare Norwegian nugge, nyggje “to jostle, rub;” Icelandic nugga “to rub, massage”). Related: Nudged; nudging. (http://www.etymonline.com)
Who are we to take an age-old word from the dictionary and claim it to be only that which we say it is. We can’t, really! And so there really is no way for us to say that something is or isn’t a nudge in the more general sense of the word. Take for instance the Dutch website http://www.nudge.nl. A cool website and initiative (sadly only in Dutch right now) which is about sustainable development projects. Freely translated from their ‘about’ section, they: “By facilitating bottom-up initiatives, offer negotiation perspectives that are easily accessible for all. Activities are based on ecological, economical and social impacts, both large scale and small scale.”. It is a social enterprise but it has not anything to do per se with the nudges we are talking about here. Confusing, yet who are we to criticize? They have just as much right to use the name as we do. So if some critic states that something is a nudge, and that he/she despises it for cooercing him/her into a certain direction, the only thing we really can say is “No, that is not a Thaler-Sunstein-nudge!”. It might be a normal nudge, if the person really is experiencing a government official shoving him/her in the back.
But then, with all this conceptual confusion, isn’t it better to take on a different name? Maybe. Maybe not. The weakness of the word – that it is used for other things as well because it is an already existing word – is also its strength. The word symbolizes what nudges are about. We of the behavioural-economy-nudge do not literally want to push – gently – consumers towards the right electricity choice, healthy and eco-friendly products or what not. I for one do not plan to improve the world by shoving people around. The strength of the word nudging lies in its symbolic meaning of giving people a little … well… nudge … in the right direction. It is a figurative way of saying we encourage people to do this and that, without standing in their way to do things differently.
I for one opt for maintaining the terminology as it is now, although a lot can be done about making clear (both to ourselves as towards others) what our Thaler-Sunstein-Nudge really is. But I am just one of many. Anyone who has the most brilliant term, slogan, or whatnot for what we really want with our nudge, make yourself known. There is ample space below this article for your very welcome feedback!