25 April 2014

There’s a backlash against nudging – but it was never meant to solve every problem

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Sceptics fail to grasp that this is a strategy that improves lives while treating citizens with dignity – unlike coercion, argues Cass Sunstein.

It is true that nudges are not a sufficient approach to some of our most serious problems, such as violent crime, poverty, and climate change. Nonetheless, they have five major advantages over coercive approaches.

First, people’s situations are highly diverse. By allowing people to go their own way, nudges reduce the costs of one-size-fits-all solutions.

Second, public officials have limited information. If official nudges are based on mistakes, the damage is far less severe than in the case of bans, because people remain free to ignore them.

Third, public officials do not always have the purest of motivations. They may be affected by the influence of well-organised private groups. If so, it is a major safeguard that people can go their own way.

Fourth, people may feel frustrated and angry if deprived of the ability to choose. When a government provides information or offers a warning, it simultaneously tells citizens that in the end they have the right to make their own decisions.

Fifth, freedom of choice can be, and often is, seen as an intrinsic good that a government should honour if it is to treat people with dignity. This is not a point about the subjective experience of frustration and anger. It is a matter of respect.

Cass Robert Sunstein is an American legal scholar who was the administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs in the Obama administration. Sunstein co-authored Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness with economist Richard Thaler.

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