On June 8, 2017, I was part of a Roundtable at the Conference #NudgeInFrance held in Paris by Nudge France on 'The Limits of Nudge: Ethics & Manipulation'. Together with Cass Sunstein, Anne-Lise Sibony and Mariam Chammat we had a lively discussion led by Elsa Savourey from NudgeFrance. Prior to the panel we were send some questions for reflections, my notes on which I thought was worth sharing for those who couldn't attend, or was too busy listening to make their own notes. The notes will be shared over the next couple of days.
Elsa: As an introductory question: is nudge always “for good”? Are there nudges "for bad"? Are such considerations in relation to good or bad nudges integrated in the definition of what is a nudge?
Pelle: A nudge is defined as a psychological function of any attempt at influencing people’s judgment, choice or behaviour in a predictable way, that is (1) made possible because of cognitive limitations, biases, routines, and habits in individual and social decision-making posing barriers for people to perform rationally in their own self-declared interests, and which (2) works by making use of those limitations, biases, routines, and habits as integral parts of such attempts, see (Hansen 2016). In particular, this implies that a nudge is intended to cause a behavioural effect independently of (i) forbidding or adding any rationally relevant choice options; (ii) changing incentives, whether regarded in terms of time, trouble, social sanctions, economic and so forth, or (iii) providing hitherto unkown factual information and rational argumentation.
From this it is seen that the definition does not imply any normative criteria for an aspect of an intervention to qualify as a nudge. It includes interventions that may usually be evaluated as “nudges for good”, e.g. decreasing the unit size of cakes served at a buffet to reduce intake of sugar and fat; as well as interventions that may usually be evaluated as “for bad”, e.g. increasing the unit size of cakes served at a buffet to increase intake of sugar and fat. Both interventions utilize behaviour changing functions that qualify as nudges.
Elsa: Nudge plays to mostly unconscious factors. Aren't people who are nudged just manipulated into a given choice? What is the difference between manipulation and nudge?
Pelle: First, I have to say that I’m not sure that I agree with the premise of this question. I think it is a widespread misunderstanding that Nudges mostly play on unconscious factors. It’s not a coincidence that many people tend to think this. First of all, many academics talk straightforward about cognitive bias and heuristics as unconsciously influencing our behaviour. Second, some of the most memorable behavioural insights from behavioural economics and cognitive- and social psychology are those that really surprise and fascinate us – and those insights that really surprise and fascinate us are typically those that influences our behaviour in a way we may label “unconscious”. Hence, due to availability bias, they are the examples that come to our mind when we happen to think about what characterizes nudges.
However, from a scientific point of view we should be more careful when we describe how nudges work. As Cass described it in his keynote, dual process theories often explain their findings in terms of system 1 and system 2 cognitive processes. System 2 processes are what we call ‘reflective’, and as such they are consciously accessible to our inner experience by definition. This leads many people to believe that System 1 processes must be unconscious. But if you listened carefully to Cass he did not characterise system 1 processes as unconscious as such, but – quite correctly – characterized system 1 processes as automatic and intuitive, where automatic means non-intentional. And here is the important point: that cognitive processes are automatic and intuitive doesn’t imply that they are unconscious in the sense that they are invisible to our ‘inner eye’.
The substitution heuristic provides an example of this. We often answer a complex question by answering a similar, but simpler one. On an everyday basis this usually works quite fine for our purposes, but it always comes at the cost of precision and correctness. Now, while the substitution heuristic is automatic, we can actually recognise it from our experience; and knowing of the heuristic and attending to our thinking we may even experience it as it happens and decide to reject the result of our own thinking. It’s not that it’s possible for us to do this all the time. It requires way too much effort and attention. But it is possible, which shows us, that we can actually experience, monitor and sometimes even override some of our automatic processes. They are not necessarily ‘unconscious’, but they are often non-conscious.
So that was the premise. What about the question? "Aren't people who are nudged just manipulated into a given choice?"
The answer to this question will be posted tomorrow. Sign up for news (below my chin), if you don't want to miss it.