February 12, 2014
Watch Out, There’s A Nudger About
Put down that drink, cigarette, or cholesterol-laden snack; they might kill you (eventually). Don’t walk under a truck; it will hurt. Careful with that power saw; three limbs are not as good as four. Warning – being dead does not look good on a CV. Unsubtle public health and safety warnings we have kind of grown accustomed to and can succumb to sheepishly or blissfully ignore, proud of our defiance. When government interference is up front and in your face, at least you have a choice to suck it or chuck it. But, what about the Nudgers? The sneaky geeks who are secretly trying to change your behavior (to nudge you) without you ever knowing? Well, listen up all you Nudgers! I am on to you and I’m on the lookout!
David Cameron’s UK coalition government set up its Behavioral Insights Team, better known as the “nudge unit,” to try to influence citizen behavior in subtle secretive ways. It was the first state-run organization of its kind in the world, although the scientific principles of “behavioral economics” have been applied around the world in commercial and governmental enterprises for some time. The aim is to deliver a kind of mind control that you see either as beneficial to the “nanny” state or a sinister undercover operation reminiscent of George Orwell’s classic dystopian novel 1984. How does it work?
Examples quoted in the UK press include things like painting lines on the road closer together near dangerous areas to increase the perception of speed; placing healthier option foods at eye level in shops, as that is where you are most likely to select from; painting a wasp in the center of a urinal to encourage a more accurate aim! There are many others we don’t even know about. Now, a new initiative seems likely to push people towards using e-cigarettes, provoking even more controversy. Other measures to reduce smoking, like warnings and graphic pictures on packaging, have gone some way to reducing smoking, but at least left people with a choice. A lot of die-hard smokers have made that choice and it is these that the nudgers are after. There are still around 10 million smokers in the UK and smoking causes up to 80,000 deaths every year, so reducing those deaths is undeniably an admirable intention. But arguments still rage about the safety or otherwise of e-cigarettes. They are banned in Australia, Thailand, Brazil, Canada and Singapore because there is as yet no complete and convincing research into their side effects. Any attempt to secretly influence people towards their use is a subtle but potentially powerful way of changing behavior without open discussion and fact-based decision making.
In other examples, people are being asked to opt out of (rather than opt into) organ donation when filling in driving license applications. Elsewhere, those filing tax returns are asked to sign the form before completing it, as it is believed this will make them less likely to lie. They are also told how many people in their local area have filed before them.
This is not a political issue. This is about health, the ethical use of science, and about the freedom of the individual. Both left and right seem happy to accept this relentless erosion of the principles of open government. Taking each individual nudge at face value they might seem innocuous, but added together there is a definite risk of “mission creep.” I suppose the real question is about how much we are prepared to accept the secrecy. How far will we tolerate our consent being side-stepped? Just to add to the concern is the latest move that partly privatizes the nudge unit and therefore hides it from public scrutiny by removing it from the Freedom of Information Act. The nudgers are going underground.
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