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.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact:

8 thoughts on “Nudging, shoving, and manhandling”

  1. I think that Farrell and Shalizi's objection to nudges is a different one. If I read their article aright, it says that a) people aren't often stupid in the way that Thaler and Sunstein posit, and b) that bureaucracies *are* stupid in a way that T&S don't posit. (For example, with organ donations, if you don't have the public-information and surgical and medical-transport &c infrastructure, all that opt-in will do is reduce people's trust in acute-care organizations.)

    But there's also the strong tendency (especially on the right, it seems) to alter words' meanings as a way of changing the territory of policy debates (protests become censorship, refusing to allow people to impose their view on others become attacks on personal liberty usw). With "nudges" this can be particularly effective because the kind of people who read intellectual discussions may not have a good idea of just how powerful certain changes in the architecture of decision are, be they options buried in pages of fine print or choices that can be made only by going to distant offices open on a limited schedule.

    1. One of the main example of a nudge is setting a default contribution to a retirement account. Any default amount is implicitly a nudge in one direction or another. You can nudge people to saving little for retirement or saving much. Individuals are not compelled to save any particlar amount, but if they don't want to or don't have the band width to think about this, what is wrong with society (through government) gently nudging one way rather than another. That is, if any government policy about retirement saving constitutes a nudge, if there is no way to routinely establish these accounts without a nudge, it is foolish not to consider what is most likely to be in the greatest interest of the typical individual. Anyone who disagrees can change the amount.

      1. It's another self-inflicted paradox of the loopy left. When it comes to government spending, they want more of it in order to stimulate the economy. But then they think it is a great idea to "nudge" people into savings, which necessarily reduces spending. So rather than have people spending their money on stuff they may want, we will have them save their money, and compensate for the slackened demand by having the government spend even more money (that we must borrow) on stuff that the ruling elite want to spend it on – probably including war making, deporting law abiding residents, building walls, government hiring and pensions, protectionist policies for big donors, and all the other things we hate coming out of D.C. People ask why the conservatives vote against their self-interest, but this is at least as much of a problem on the left.

      2. Ultimately, everything is (at least) a nudge. The only question is how strongly, in what direction, and who gets to do the nudging. If I'm making it easy to do certain things (e.g set up a retirement account with a few checkmarks and a signature) that's a nudge toward doing them. If you make it really hard to do certain things (e.g. returning to the state where you were born for a notarized copy of your birth certificate and the town where you were married for a notarized copy of the license just in order to vote in a local election) then you are nudging people away.

        1. I say it matters a lot who is doing the nudging. Your spouse can nudge you and if you don't appreciate it for some reason, you can negotiate a cease fire or some other modus vivendi. When the state nudges you by directing your funds to an account of their choosing, requiring that you do something out of the ordinary to gain access to those funds, that is a usurpation of individual sovereignty. It may seem trivial in the case of a savings plan, but it is a bad precedent and another brick in the wall between the individual and his or her natural sovereignty.

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