To nudge or not to nudge, of what is the question?

By Emmanuel Robert
Master Candidate in International Relations/Political Science
The Graduate Institute

Synopsis: More than just a policy instrument, the nudge – a recent development in public policies – calls for a novel rationality of governance, one grounded in the shaping of the immediate environment: a meso-rationality.

Keywords: regulation, rationality, behaviour change, public administration

In recent years, the concept of the nudge has gained currency in common parlance as both an iconic “buzz-word” and a concrete managerial formula for public administrations and private companies alike. Initially a “category of practice”, a folk concept of the English language, the term has morphed into a “category of analysis”, a normative and performative concept affiliated more closely with the paradigm of behavioural economics and the regulation school. Following a re-branding by the behaviourist scholars Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the nudge has become political gospel in some circles whose vitalist, a titular message “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness”  has converted a great many laymen and laywomen to its cause, not only within the temples of academia, but also beyond, diffusing its litany into the world of politics and administration.

As true “mercenary intellectuals, to use Pierre Bourdieu’s evocative metaphor, Thaler and Sunstein can indeed pride themselves in having served as linchpins of important managerial initiatives, which have helped disseminate the litany of the nudge within government agencies and across international organisations. Kickstarted en avant-première by the Behavioural Insights Team inaugurated under the premiership of David Cameron in 2010 in the United Kingdom, a host of nudge-units and nudge-related programmes have started to populate the policy repertoire of public administrations, migrating steadily into the more remote territories of corporate and international governance. From the Mind, Behavior, and Development Unit (eMBeD) of the World Bank to the more recent nomination of the Behavioural Science Advisor to the United Nations, nudging strategies have gained a solid foothold in international institutions, all the more so within development agencies.

As an increasingly privileged instrument of public, private and global governance, nudging techniques have come to be applied to a myriad of socio-economic objectives ranging from increasing tax compliance, improving energy conservation to promoting sanitation practices. Due to the softness of the method, and to the low costs engendered by its implementation, the nudge has been hailed by many policy-makers as a novel antidote to the Steuerungsdefizit (the steering deficiencies) of modern governance. Much like its appellation, the application of the nudge is intended to be simple. The nudge works by making subtle tweaks to the architecture of choice of a targeted individual or group so as to nudge, to induce people quasi-unconsciously towards the election of options and behaviours that are expected to maximise their well-being or that of society. From the use of smaller plates in school canteens to reduce food waste, to the automatic enrolment in organ donation schemes to increase the pool of donors, nudges allow to prompt behaviour changes, to garner stakeholder engagement from targeted populations without having to resort to intrusive, and often coercive “command and control” measures.

Infused with incantatory promises, nudges have not only called upon a thorough revamp of bureaucratic techniques, but more profoundly the transformation of public action itself. More than having only added another layer to the vast repertoire of existent public policies, nudges have inaugurated a novel art de gouverner, an innovative “government of conducts”, which has opened up a new chapter of the mission rationalisatrice of modern societies. Through the promotion of the nudge, Thaler and Sunstein plead for a specific rationality of governance, the emphasis of which is no longer centred on rationalising human actions through conscious learning and pedagogic techniques, but rather through the arrangement of an actor’s immediate choice architecture, a rationality that could be understood as a meso-rationality, a rationality of the immediate environment. Said differently, the credo of the nudge aims much less at inculcating a rational ethos in the minds and spirits of citizens, but much more at setting up rationally-arranged environments within which individuals will be draped in given occasions of choice – at the workplace, in public transports, in front of administrative paperwork, etc.. The meso, the concrete and proximate environment, is thus heralded as the supreme locus of rationality, supplanting what has since Descartes seemed its revered habitat, the human cogito.

Although the precise reference to the terms “rationality” or “rationalization” is not formulated ad litteram in the works of Thaler and Sunstein – more appealing euphemisms such as “welfare” or “better off” being preferred to them – the mission rationalisatrice is, however, patently obvious. Packaging insights from behaviourism, social psychology and neuroscience, nudges aim at taming the cognitive biases of the homo sapiens, as a way to approximate the rational ideal of the homo economicus, but more pragmatically perhaps simply as a means of directing more efficaciously the actions of individuals towards objectives decided upstream by policy-makers. While the range of nudge-techniques continues to grow with new discoveries, two processes proposed by Thaler and Sunstein have since become the gold standards of the nudge-formula: (i) the default effect and (ii) the anchoring effect.

The default effect proposes a particular structuring of the choice architecture whereby an option defined in advance as advantageous is selected as the default option. In the absence of a choice explicitly expressed by the users, the option pre-checked by the choice architects (e.g. the principal) is automatically ratified. The effectiveness of such a practice relies on the status quo bias, which reflects a behavioural tendency to resist change and to favour routinised practices. Taking advantage of this cognitive bias, choice architects aim, by modifying the default option, to make decisions in favour of options defined as less desirable or more laborious. The anchoring effect, in contrast, takes time and information very seriously. The specific choice architecture involved in this technique consists in focusing on the nature of the initial data, on the preliminary informational references from which individuals will define their preferences and elect their options. Resting on another cognitive shortcut, that of the confirmation bias, which reflects a human inclination to seek confirmation of initial information, choice architects can guide a course of action by defining the nature of the first pieces of information.

As those two nudge-techniques make clear, simple tweaks to choice architecture can fast-track, facilitate, preselect and automatize decision-making in favour of allegedly more rational behaviours without reverting to directive and overt action. By focusing exclusively on the design of choice architecture, the theory of the nudge operates a shift in the perceived locus of rationality, no longer inscribed and situated in the agent, but rather lodged in the arrangement of his milieu. Otherwise caught in irrational latencies, the homo sapiens can only approximate rational conduct by being embedded in an environment which has been designed rationally – presumably or nominally at least. In that respect, nudges ought to be viewed as “prosthetic policies” to use the words of Michel Callon, whose objectives are to restore, within a given context, the rational functionalities of which individuals are normally deprived. But, as the Greek etymology of prosthesis insinuates, nudges remain an addition, an attachment, foreign and extraneous to human learning. Without the semi-divine intervention of the nudge, individuals would have no choice but to slip back into their archaic rational disabilities.

Under the looming aegis of the nudge, Thaler and Sunstein bode a small Copernican revolution. Doing away with a conventional approach to rational governance, wherein the process of rationalisation is pursued by agents with full cognizance, the theory of the nudge seeks to influence behaviours indirectly and unconsciously through a structuration of the choice architecture, through an orchestration of the environmental fabric. More than just another fancy policy instrument added to the portfolio of policy-makers, the gospel of the nudge predicates a novel art de gouverner, a new chapter of the mission rationalisatrice, which involves the fostering of a particular type of rationality, no longer centred on the social actor, but rather recentred on the arrangement of its immediate environment: a meso-rationality. For all its proclaimed promises, the nudge, nonetheless, vehicles a political project of limited democratic magnitude. Much like the “Charmeuse de Serpents” of Le Douanier Rousseau (see cover image), the alluring melody of the nudge may easily morph into hypnotic techniques, whose suggestion effects may extort more than restore the rationality and autonomy of individuals. For global governance and its democratically-precarious institutions, the danger will surely be patent.

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