Responding to Government Nudges (2013 Oct)

by Barry A. Liebling

Recently the Obama administration, in keeping with its ardent desire to expand the reach and power of government, announced that it is recruiting a “Behavioral Insights Team.” The mission of this new federal task force is to design programs and interventions – using state-of-the-art techniques of psychology and behavioral economics – to induce, stimulate, persuade, and nudge people into making “better decisions.” Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser, has called upon social scientists who are interested to consider joining the team.

The Behavioral Insights Team is modeled after a program that is already in place in England where social scientists are using research-based techniques to encourage people to “behave properly” – such as paying their taxes on time and insulating their attics.

How should we respond to a federal initiative of creating and implementing government nudges?

Consider the motives of the administration. The document that invites social scientists to participate says the objective of the program is to “design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals.” Which people achieve what goals? You can bet that the emphasis will not be on encouraging ordinary citizens to lead independent lives. Instead, it will be “wise government officials” gently guiding citizens to behave for “the common good.” To these social scientists citizens make “better decisions” when they comply with the desires of bureaucrats.

The manifest intentions of the Behavioral Insights Team is syrupy and condescending – helping “unenlightened, common people” do the “right things.” This (unsuccessfully) conceals their latent, deeper motive – satisfying their craving for bossing people around. Note that the team will have the weight, prestige, and gigantic monetary resources of the government behind it.

The good news is that the team’s ambitions can be thwarted. People who value their freedom will not cave in to diktats – even if they are muted and are described by government officials as being “for your own good.”

Many years ago when I was an undergraduate I worked as a research assistant for a behavioral psychologist. My job was to meet individually with seven-year-old children at the university elementary school and teach them various arithmetic skills. The professor wanted to demonstrate that they would learn faster if they were given a tangible reward each time they solved a problem. I vividly remember offering candy to a bright girl who indignantly refused it and told me she could learn on her own and did not need “any reinforcements.”

Of course, the young girl was not typical of all of the children in the school. But she demonstrated what I now recognize as a healthy desire to maintain her autonomy. She was willing to learn arithmetic but was defiantly determined to resist being manipulated. What was true then of the young girl applies now to a large cohort of children and adults.

There is no way to know in advance how many American citizens will notice and be offended by attempted controls (nudges) of the Behavioral Insights Team. But in today’s world – where the internet is ubiquitous – getting the word out that the government is abusing its citizens is easy and quick.

Note that people who value their freedom will not simply recognize that the state is nudging them, become annoyed, and do the opposite. That would be counterproductive. The feds might have a program to induce you to eat more vegetables and exercise more – acts that you agree are in your self interest. But the government’s proper role is to protect individual rights from being violated, not to direct the lives of its citizens. Every time the government becomes your personal supervisor you lose more of your independence. The proper response is to act like the seven-year-old girl – do what you believe is right and scold the government for interfering in your life.

And if you can spot behavioral influence attempts that are only moderately offensive (you might benefit, but the government is not your boss) it will be easy to identify government pushes that are entirely noxious (for example to pay more in taxes, to snoop and snitch on your neighbors, to donate your organs to the government unless you actively opt out in writing, …).

Note that the idea of using behavioral science principles to induce compliance is not new, and neither is its lack of success. More than half a century ago Vance Packard wrote The Hidden Persuaders, a best-selling book that warned of the ill effects of behavioral science on freedom. At that time the popular vocabulary was “motivational research,” “depth psychology,” and “subliminal tactics.” Readers were warned that private companies, rather than the government, were using marketing techniques that bent consumers to their will. Keep in mind that private companies are benign, deal with you by mutual consent, and cannot seize your property or put you in jail. By contrast the government has a monopoly on the use of force and has real power over you. Ordinary citizens, the book suggested, will have a stupendously difficult time resisting the diabolical pressures of corporations to buy their products. Of course, history did not play out that way. Huge companies spent enormous amounts of money on marketing and often failed. Contrary to Packard’s thesis the impact of behavioral persuasion was modest, and citizens – because they cannot be fooled for long – did not knuckle under to the corporations’ “hidden persuasions.”

While the objectives of the Obama administration’s Behavioral Insights Team are detestable the team may actually have a net positive effect. Many Americans will become aware of the attempts to nudge them, will find the prospect repellent, and will spread the word that a government that tries to control its citizens is not to be trusted. A popular backlash might “help people to achieve their goals.”

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