Interesting piece in the Guardian about arguments over the efficacy of nudges in dealing with social problems. The Cameron government has been very keen on the idea that people "can be encouraged to make life-improving choices through incentives and social cues rather than through regulation and government legislation," suggesting that "issues such as the obesity crisis could be tackled by nudges – clearer food labelling, placing fruit not chocolate near supermarket checkouts – rather than by heavy-handed (and expensive) state intervention."
However, Baroness Julia Neuberger has been leading a subgroup to study how useful nudges really can be, and has come to some pessimistic (but to me not surprising) conclusions. First, her group's findings:
"Basically you need more than just nudge," she says, when we meet in the Lords. "Behavioural change interventions appear to work best when they're part of a package of regulation and fiscal measures," she adds, putting down her papers and a large canvas bag from Daunt Books in Hampstead. She notices me looking at the bag. "I use it for everything! I don't like briefcases."
The difficulty with nudge theory, she says, is that "all politicians love quick fixes. I mean, they look at very short time frames. I think one of the problems with all of this is if you really want to change people's behaviour it takes a very long time … you have to look at a 20- to 25-year span before you get a full change of behaviour."
As an example, Neuberger points to the efforts to persuade people to wear seat belts in the 1970s, which incorporated an advertising campaign and legislation. "So it was a whole series of measures that did eventually change the climate." Later, she adds: "I think politicians would be well advised to use these sorts of behavioural interventions as part of an armoury."
"Politicians all have a split personality," she adds. "On one level, they engage their brains and they know perfectly well that things do take quite a long time to happen. On the other, they've got a very short time frame: they want to get re-elected, they need to make a mark. They have been, I think, very persuaded by the work of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. I think they found that very appealing because, broadly, they prefer the idea of using behavioural change interventions to legislating or using fiscal measures."
Presumably, part of the appeal is also that, in a time of austerity, nudging costs much less than legislating? Neuberger nods. "There needs to be a huge amount of work, which I think the government will eventually have to pay for."
Now, this finding doesn't particularly surprise me, because in my own experience, when dealing with really big behavioral changes like weight loss, nudges are useful but not sufficient. People aren't just obese because of thoughtless supermarket checkout design or cafeteria line dessert placement, and you can't trick yourself into making big changes. As I argue in an article on nudges, mindfulness and weight loss:
My experience with weight loss has made clear that while nudges can be valuable, there are times when they are simply insufficient. The smaller bowl is a nudge. But not refilling it, making restraint part of a new pattern of behavior, and appreciating the sensation of the food rather than the large quantity of it—all that demands mindfulness. Nudges and mindfulness are mirror-image twins: both are valuable, but neither works in all situations. Both are useful in situations characterized by uncertainty, temptation, the need to make immediate sacrifices for long-term gains. But nudges are great for the occasional decisions that are highly subject to influence by defaults, while mindfulness is necessary for conscious everyday choices.