Nudging, shoving, and manhandling

I’ve been puzzled why Richard Thaler’s “nudge” idea attracts such hostility from some people to my political left (including very smart people such as Henry Farrell and Cosma Shalizi). The worst thing you can say about nudging as I understand it is that it’s not very powerful; other than that, nudging is like chicken soup: it can’t do any harm.

So I’m grateful to Tyler Cowen for clarifying matters for me. Either Cowen or I badly misunderstands Thaler’s idea; if Cowen is right, you can add me to the list of anti-nudgers. But I’m pretty sure the Cowen is wrong about what Thaler says, and certain that his account confuses things that ought to be distinguished.

Nudging, as I understand it, involves changing “choice architecture” – altering the way options are presented or the time choices are made, or changing the “default outcome” if no option is explicitly chosen – in order to bring people’s actual choices more closely in line with their true preferences, as measured by the choices they would make with full information after serious reflection. That is, nudging is simply the opposite of temptation.

One of the defining features of a nudge (understood this way) is that it doesn’t narrow the range of outcomes available to the chooser. For example: presented with a menu of retirement-savings options, many employees will pick none of them, in part because of the psychological costs of decision-making and the fear of getting it wrong (“analysis paralysis”). This can be true even in the case when inaction is clearly the worst option (e.g., when the employer is picking up all of the cost). In that case, a nudge strategy would be to make enrollment in the plan that seems to experts most appropriate for the largest number of employees the default option: i.e., what happens if an employee just doesn’t fill out the form.

Crucially to the definition of a nudge, an employee who doesn’t want that option can costlessly (other than the effort of making the decision) switch to another, or none at all. As long as there’s no deception involved, and the people designing the choice architecture know what they’re doing and have the welfare of the people making the choices in mind, nudging seems to me almost entirely benign. A program that doesn’t limit freedom of choice can’t properly be said to reduce liberty, so replacing “opt-in” with “opt-out” should be thought of as facilitative rather than coercive. The same is true of, e.g., putting the salad bar first in the cafeteria line.

However, Cowen’s understanding of nudgery has a much harder edge. He gives examples where a choice less preferred by the government (or whoever is setting up the system) is made materially less attractive or more expensive, such as legally complicated and expensive divorce procedures, or abortion restrictions that force women to travel inconvenient distances. Cowen even wants to call restrictive immigration laws “nudges,” because would-be immigrants who can’t get visas can always forge documents or sneak across the border!

In my view, that sort of cost-imposing policy is radically distinct from “nudging;” Steve Teles calls it “shoving.” I don’t doubt that some such “shoves” are justified on paternalistic grounds: taxation to reduce cigarette consumption is an example. (Shoves are often justifiable on non-paternalistic grounds, such as taxes to reduce air pollution.) But such strategies aren’t always benign; people who keep smoking in the face of heavy tobacco taxes wind up just as sick as they would have otherwise, and poorer. And of course for those with limited means making something expensive can amount to barring it entirely.

Now, I agree with Cowen that the “shoving” for paternalistic reasons he wants to label as “nudging” is often preferable to more drastic means of protecting people from their own bad decisions: means that we might call “manhandling.” A tax on cigarettes is more respectful of liberty, and less prone to generate bad side effects, than an outright prohibition would be. But – in contrast to nudging – shoving is like manhandling in making those who don’t take the hint worse off. Changing incentives isn’t the same thing as changing choice architecture, and requires much stronger justification.

Nudging is no panacea, because changing choice architecture can only go so far in changing choice. Some people will continue to fall into behavioral traps even if the traps are clearly marked. And when the intervention is on non-paternalistic grounds, a considerable amount of shoving, or even manhandling, may be both justified and required. But there is clearly some room for improving outcomes at low cost and without diminishing liberty from the use of pure nudges. It’s therefore worthwhile to distinguish clearly – as it seems to me Cowen’s analysis does not – between generically benign nudges and the less benign alternatives he wants to include under the same label.

The “Nudge Squad”

Applying behavioral insights to choice architecture is an obviously good idea; the only question is how big the effects can be in various domains. But the obscurantism and unreasoning government-hatred on the Right blinds even libertarians to the virtues of an approach they ought to love.

Behavioral economists and the associated social and cognitive psychologists have demonstrated that choice behavior responds not only to “objective” benefits and costs but to various features of the “choice architecture” the world presents to the people making the choices. If non-enrollment is the default option with an opt-in requirement, fewer people will wind up enrolled than if enrollment is the default, with a fully disclosed and easy opt-out. Since there must be some default setting, there’s no such thing as a neutral choice architecture that elicits subjects’ “true preferences.” The same is true about organizing the food in a school cafeteria: what the kids eat depends in part on where different selections are placed.

People in the sales business spend a lot of time trying to design choice architectures that maximize profits. It seems obvious that people in the public-policy business ought to try to design choice architectures that serve public purposes.

In particular, in cases such as retirement planning and diet, where there’s a systematic difference between what experts recommend and subjects think is in their best interest on the one hand, and subjects’ actual behavior on the other, it seems natural to try to nudge people toward the behavior that’s in their own long-term interest as they see it, which generally means that it has external benefits as well. The same applies, with even more force, to energy conservation, where ordinary consumers systematically leave tons of money on the table for no benefit whatever; a better-insulated house more than pays for itself, quickly, and is also more comfortable to live in.

That’s the idea behind the Thaler and Sunstein “nudge” approach. The current right-wing coalition in the UK has been using it, and the Obama Administration is moving in the same direction.

Of course, it’s always an open question how much good this sort of thing can do. (See below the fold for some examples from the White House release; of course there’s no comparable list of failures.) But it’s really hard to see why anyone would be against strategies that (1) respect autonomy (2) economize on public expenditure and (3) have unambiguously positive results when they have any results at all, especially when the proposal is to do intensive experimental testing rather than rolling out grand schemes. At last, we have a polarization-proof policy proposal!

Oh, wait … I’d forgotten about the utterly pathological government-hatred and obscurantism on the contemporary American right. Fox News breaks the story with a “Govt Knows Best?” scare headline. Nick Gillespie at Reason Hit & Run writes:

Critics point out that a) expert advice is often proven wrong quickly after being implemented and b) government might have more essential functions that gulling citizens into acting one way or another.

In other words, according to Gillespie, since knowledge isn’t infallibility, ignorance is better than knowledge. And governments ought to ignore the the science of human behavior and not think about how to “gull” people into going to school, getting jobs or paying their taxes. By “critics” Gillespie must mean “idiots.” All of this is echoed, with some routine paranoid Obama-bashing added, at the usual collection of wingnut websites.

I don’t expect any better from Fox or PJ Media. But an outfit that calls itself Reason ought to be embarrassed when one of its writers displays such a flair for illogic. Does Gillespie really believe what he writes? I’d hate to think so, and don’t in fact believe it. This is the case Upton Sinclair described: “It is difficult to get a man to understand something when his salary depends upon his not understanding it.” Come to think of it, that’s a testable proposition in behavioral economics.

Continue reading “The “Nudge Squad””