State-Sponsored Docility (2009 May)

by Barry A. Liebling

Which would you prefer – Americans managing their own affairs, taking responsibility for their actions, and thinking for themselves or Americans being directed by government planners who use pernicious methods to nudge citizens into complying with the state’s wishes? The former is inherent in the vision of individualism, while the latter reflects the dreams of interventionists who yearn to manipulate.

What counts as manipulation as opposed to honest persuasion? A would-be manipulator is on the look out for exploitable weaknesses. He employs tactics that work when a person is inattentive, thoughtless, or lazy. Alert listeners reduce his chance of success since they might resent attempts at trickery. If the use of guile does not succeed, a manipulator may resort to force.

Of course manipulators have always been part of the human landscape and are often condemned for their tactics. But some leftist pundits are actively calling for the government to use surreptitious behavioral science techniques to achieve compliance.

In April 2009 Michael Grunwald published “How Obama is Using the Science of Change” in Time magazine


He asserts that President Obama is being advised by “a secret” group, the “Consortium of Behavioral Scientists.” Grunwald believes that the group will provide the administration with methods “to nudge” people into doing what government officials want. While it is not clear how determined President Obama or the behavioral scientists are about pushing people around, there is no question that Mr Grunwald is a cheerleader for massive meddling.

To set the stage Mr Grunwald repeatedly asserts that people are basically dull and incompetent to run their own lives. He writes that “Temptation is strong. We are weak” and that “We’re ignorant, shortsighted and biased toward the status quo…Our impulsive ids overwhelm our logical superegos…(and) We are a herdlike species.” These remarks are intended to “justify” governmental encroachment and the use of manipulation. Mr Grunwald insinuates that people do not know their own minds when he writes that “behavioral economics leaves room for government action to help us do what we would really want if we were rational agents.” Since people cannot manage themselves state officials will have to do it for them.

Of course, people sometimes make decisions thoughtfully and sometimes foolishly. A normal person can decide on any given occasion to pay attention, be mindful, and act rationally. Furthermore, ordinary people can acquire skills to be better thinkers and decision makers. It is telling that Mr Grunwald would rather take advantage of a person’s shortcomings to implement policy than encourage the person to improve his thinking. Is it easier to influence people with manipulation than with persuasion? Does Mr Grunwald define “rational agent” as someone who cheerfully submits to government requests? Also, if people are really “ignorant and shortsighted” does this apply to Mr Grunwald and his political cohorts? If not, how were they able to escape?

Two behavioral techniques for “bringing about change” are described by Mr Grunwald as being especially promising. The first is the opt-out technique. People are more likely to do something – like enroll in a savings plan, run “computers in energy-efficient mode and be organ donors” if they “have to take action to say no.” The idea is to make the government-desired behavior the default. Rather than asking people to volunteer for community service, sign up everyone automatically and make the slackers request to be excused.

Of course the opt-out technique is nothing new. Mail-order book clubs and music clubs have been doing it for years. Every month the company will send you – unless you say no – merchandise and an invoice. The method works because of inertia. Many people stay with the program, even if they are not interested, since it takes effort to opt-out. Significantly, the opt-out policy has been excoriated as being presumptuous and obnoxious. But tactics that are regarded as creepy when done for private profits are considered clever by Mr Grunwald when they serve his vision of “the common good.”

The second technique takes advantage of a person’s tendency to conform. When the manipulator says that many people are doing something, conformists take the cue and follow the herd. Hotel guests are more likely to re-use towels if they are told other guests are. Registered voters are more likely to show up at the polls when they hear that the majority of their neighbors are voting. The implication is that a government request will work better if it asserts other people are complying – for example, “most people wash their clothes with cold water, so should you.”

Of course, not all people are inclined to conform. Some give in every time, some occasionally, and some people are stubbornly independent – following the crowd only if they judge the action to be right. And conforming is often regarded as a weakness. Adults are lambasted for mindlessly “keeping-up-with-the-Joneses.” Young people are urged to resist peer pressure and avoid recreational drugs. Is habitual conformity good if it furthers the objectives of those with political power? If the government promotes conformity will more citizens become docile and compliant?

What happens when the behavioral science tricks fail to work? Some people will stubbornly insist on keeping their autonomy. Mr Grunwald flashes the government trump card and writes, “Sometimes nudges aren’t enough. When government really wants people to behave in a certain way, it can make it the law…” And this reveals the inner spirit of the would-be manipulator – I’ll try to get compliance the nice way, but I won’t hesitate to use coercion.

Which would you prefer – Americans who are largely autonomous and manage their own lives or Americans who are docile and led by the state? Think carefully.

*** See other entries at in “Monthly Columns.” ***

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