This article will try to answer the following questions: What are nudges? How do they influence our choice architecture? What are the potential advantages and risks of using such tools? And most importantly, why should we care about this?
Most of us may be unable to describe what nudges are, and yet, all of us are likely to encounter them every day. More specifically, they probably play a significant role in the way we make decisions, whether it is about what to buy at the supermarket, how many steps we should walk, or what kind of insurance we should subscribe to. The funny thing about this is, we probably don’t even realize it. This article will try to answer the following questions: What are nudges? How do they influence our choice architecture? What are the potential advantages and risks of using such tools? And most importantly, why should we care about this?
What are nudges?
In a book published in 2008, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein define nudges as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”.
A good example of this is supermarket design: fruits and vegetables are often placed at the entrance, while chips, candy and alcohol are often much further away. Through this, consumers are encouraged to make better, healthier choices: the kind of choices they are assumed to favour. On the other hand, nudges can work in a less benevolent way: when you order a combo at a fast-food restaurant, you may be asked whether you want to make it a large one. You are much more likely to make that decision if you are presented with this possibility this way, than you would be if you had to actively look for the option on your own. Nudges, in brief, are subtle and almost imperceptible tools that influence your choices without coercion or force. They gently push you toward a trajectory that you remain free not to take.
Basically, nudges are meant to help us make the choice that we would most certainly make were we fully rational.
Thaler and Sunstein are big proponents of nudges, they genuinely believe that these tools can be put at the service of human development and the common good. Their faith is mostly based on a simple premise: that people are generally quite bad at making rational decisions, even after they have identified what’s good for them. For example, I may know that investing in a good retirement plan is the most beneficial thing for me to do, as it would maximize future-me well-being. Yet, I may struggle on a daily basis to save for retirement, and instead spend my money on immediately available gadgets. This is because, like most human beings, I may have conflicting desires, and I tend to favour actions that will generate instant gratification instead of those that will benefit me in a far-off future, even when I know these actions make the most sense. This kind of biased choice-architecture leads Susntein and Thaler to conclude that I, like anyone else, could benefit from a technology that assists me in my decision-making. Basically, nudges are meant to help us make the choice that we would most certainly make were we fully rational.
Conditions for nudges
There are a few conditions for nudges.
First of all, they should be non-coercive, which means that they should not forcefully impose anything on the agent, and the agent should not fear the consequences of not following them. They should also be easily resistible. Yashar Saghai wrote in a 2013 article that “the nudgees are in control of their choices: they have a real opportunity to dissent from the nudger”.
For example, red lights don’t count as nudges: they may force you to stop because the traffic on the other side of the road makes it physically impossible for you to go, or because you may recognise that it would be too dangerous for you to do so. They may also induce the fear that a policeman would see you and give you a fine. Either way, the incentive not to go it too strong for you to be completely free to do so. The red light is therefore not a gentle push, it is a form of interference that restricts your freedom to go as you please (which does not mean it is a bad thing).
Nudges should be non-coercive, which means that they should not forcefully impose anything on the agent, and the agent should not fear the consequences of not following them.
The influence of the nudge must not impair the nudgee to the point that she is unable to conceive of a different option, or acting in a way that would be incompatible with her “true self”. For example, someone who is under the influence of a drug cannot be said to be nudged, as the drug is likely affecting her self-control.
Finally, nudges are said to trigger a shallow part of the brain, referred to as System 1 mechanism. This part is supposed to generate fast, more automatic, and less conscious decisions, when System 2 mechanisms refer to deeper, slower, and more aware cognitive activities. The goal of nudges is therefore to help the nudgee make the most rational decision in the most time- and energy-saving way: without in fact, really thinking about it at all. The goal of nudges is therefore to influence with convincing or coercing.
Thaler and Sunstein argue that nudges are an aspect of what they called “libertarian-paternalism”. Put together, these terms may seem to form an oxymoron. Indeed, the adjective libertarian refers to something that increases negative freedom — i.e. the freedom to act without external obstacles.
Paternalism, on the other hand, is the idea that one is justified in imposing a certain vision of the good to others, on the basis that she knows better what the other’s interests are — the way a parent would for a child. The oddity of such association of words seems therefore evident. However, Thaler and Substein argue that these concepts are in fact compatible, and best represented by benevolent nudges — as opposed to ill-oriented ones. How can anything be libertarian and paternalistic at the same time, and what makes nudges the best candidates for such definition?
“The libertarian aspect of our strategies lies in the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like (…). The paternalistic aspect lies in the claim that it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.”
Thaler and Sustein are deeply committed to the idea that individual freedom should be preserved and promoted, and don’t believe that it is necessarily incompatible with influencing people in a direction that is overall better for them. They use the adjective “libertarian” as a way of saying “a form of freedom-preserving paternalism”. Their goal is to “make it easy for people to go their own way”. This wish, however, can only be fulfilled on the condition that whatever is proposed is in fact “people’s own way”, that it is aligned with their true and ultimate desires. It also implies that the paternalism in question is weak and non-intrusive, and that it does not make alternatives impossible or too hard for the person to choose.
What to think of this definition, and of the role of nudges in general? After all, nudges are almost imperceptible, and most of us live an entire life without even being aware that they exist. Some of us may even find them rather helpful: isn’t it after all a good thing to be reminded by your smartwatch that you still have to drink 3 glasses of water before you have reached your daily hydration goal? Isn’t it better that school cafeterias are designed in a way that your child is more likely to pick a salad instead of a slice of pizza? So how could nudges be a problem, and why should we discuss this topic at all?
Well, like most things in philosophy, things are not that simple. Whether we think they are a good or a bad thing, nudges raise questions related to decision-making, freedom, autonomy, or even morality.
How can we call a nudged decision “our true decision,” and under which conditions? How can we make sure these conditions are respected? Who regulates nudges? Are we really free to resist them? Who is to decide what “the most rational decision” is and according to what criteria? Is there a risk in allowing powerful people, governments, or big corporations to use nudges to potentially influence citizens or costumers? Should they be subjected to a system of checks and balances the way laws and institutions are? These are only a small portion of questions that the concept of nudging brings about.
Arguments for nudges
People tend to make bad decisions
The main argument in favour of choice-architecture is rooted in the belief that people, on average, tend to make poor decisions and often act against their best interests. Therefore, coming up with a cost-effective, easy and non-forceful way to re-direct them sounds like a very good idea. Nudges come into play and can be useful when people’s ability to self-control or their self-discipline is low, something that everyone, even the most strong-willed of us, experiences from time to time.
Nudges are better than other measures
Thaler and Sunstein also argue that nudges tend to be more accepted than other behaviour-enhancing measures such as laws, taxation or fines. This is because the nature of nudges makes them either almost imperceptible, or seemingly benevolent. People are indeed more likely to react positively to encouragement than they are to prohibition or punishment. They tend to welcome nudges, when the other measures often bring about resentment and a feeling of unfairness — whether or not this feeling is justified.
Humans are prone to biases and fallacies
Humans are naturally prone to biases and quick thinking. Instead of aiming at correcting a pattern that is argued to be constitutive of the human mind, and therefore unavoidable, nudges make use of these tendencies, but redirect them towards the greater good. Thaler and Sunstein write that “most of us are busy, our lives are complicated, and we can’t spend all our time thinking and analysing everything”. This is why, according to them, people tend to rely on rules of thumb tricks — influenced by anchoring, availability, representativeness, default option, etc. We are also prone to fallacious thinking and biases — overconfidence and optimism, framing, desire for maintaining status quo, etc.
Humans are naturally prone to biases and quick thinking.
In brief, we are cognitively fallible and live in a complex world that does not allow us the time or energy to thoroughly evaluate each decision we have to make. This is where nudges come to the rescue. By putting these flawed thinking patterns to good use, we don’t end up making terribly irrational decisions. A good example of this would be putting healthy products at eye level in a store: we are free to take the time to look around and reach out for other options. But because we’re busy, possibly tired, and tend to rely on default positions, we often don’t.
From a utilitarian perspective, there is room to argue that nudges may be a great thing. Indeed, assuming they fulfil their role, they will effectively help people making decisions that will benefit them, but will also overall benefit society at large. Utilitarianism stipulates that a morally good decision is a decision that maximizes utility for the agents involved.
Utility is defined by Jeremy Bentham as “the property in any object, whereby it tends to produce benefit, advantage, pleasure, good or happiness”. If nudges work and remain benevolent, they will maximize well-being for those who use them. If we adopt this utilitarian viewpoint, a society constituted of individual happy agents is likely to be a good society. For example, if people are nudged into investing their money into a good and sustainable retirement plan, instead of spending it on whatever they immediately desire, it is safe to say they will probably be happier in the long run — and that this kind of pleasure outweighs the immediate satisfaction produced by spending the money on say, the latest new phone.
Society would also benefit from this: people would live less stressful lives, would be able to make plans for the future, would not be forced to work several jobs at an old age, be able to enjoy time with their family, etc. This picture is one of a healthier society, in which one would happily live. From this point of view, therefore, nudges are morally justifiable insofar as they do in fact produce more well-being for the greatest amount of people.
Nudges improve human freedom
We know that proponents of nudges defend the idea that they don’t threaten freedom. There may also be room to argue that they, in fact, improve it. This requires that we distinguish between two types of freedom: one negative, one positive.
Negative freedom is simply the absence of interference or obstacle between one agent and the object of her desire.
Isaiah Berlin has notoriously drawn this distinction, and explained that negative freedom is simply the absence of interference or obstacle between one agent and the object of her desire. It is freedom “from” external influences, when positive freedom is freedom “to” perform actions, the capacity to do certain things, typically, the kind of things that we “truly” want to do. This involves skills like self-control, self-knowledge, and autonomy. Nudges are supposed to help you gain self-control, such that you can realize desires that you have either pre-determined or that you identify as in your interest: they are meant to help you being the master of your own destiny.
You may also argue that an agent who picks a decision that will ultimately bring the most benefit to her is in fact a freer agent: this implies that we commit to a substantive definition of freedom — the idea that freedom is determined by the kind of actions we perform rather than the way we choose them. In this case, nudges help the agent making decisions that not only are qualitatively better, but in doing so she also cultivates her own future freedom — for example, if they agent makes healthier choices because of nudges, she will in fact be healthier, which will allow her to live longer, be more active, be able to pick between a broader range of options, and so on.
Nudges are unavoidable
Another argument used by Thaler and Sunstein is that nudges are already everywhere and unavoidable anyway. They claim that there is no such thing as a neutral choice architecture, meaning that whenever you make a decision, it is always influenced by something. Child rearing, in this sense, is also a form of nudging: parents use all kinds of tricks to present options to the child in a way that will make it easy for her to make the best decision. If it is choice-framing is inevitable, we may as well take advantage of the situation, and reframe choices according to the right kind of engineering.
Arguments against nudges
Despite their apparent benefits, nudges-sceptics have raised various concerns about their use and generalisation. Here is a list of the main problems potentially posed by this kind of influenced choice-architecture.
Freedom of choice requires that we have as many options as possible, including those that may not work to our benefit.
Nudges may cause alienation and inauthentic behaviour
We have seen that the main problem regarding nudges concerns freedom and autonomy. Every external influence brings the possibility of alienation — which doesn’t mean alienation will necessarily occur. But every time we are guided towards a certain goal, we may question whether our decisions are truly authentic, especially when we don’t know the source of the influence, or what it is directing us towards. We may also think that because nudges aim at the reduction of our ill-motivated decisions, they may deprive us from the very possibility of making mistakes, possibility that for a variety of reasons, we may want to protect.
For example, we simply may consider that freedom of choice requires that we have as many options as possible, including those that may not work to our benefit. We may also argue that making mistakes also implies the possibility to learn from these mistakes, and that nudges therefore take away a precious epistemic tool.
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Who gets to decide what the best option is?
Another concern has to do with the choice architects themselves. The initial premise is that people are pretty bad at making rational decisions. Nudge-engineers are however, people too. What is it that makes them more able to make those decisions, when we fail to do so for ourselves? Furthermore, as people may have a multitude of motivations and reasons to act a certain way, who gets to decide what counts as a good and rational decision? The difficulty to answer these questions is enough to make us question the legitimacy of choice-architects, and the incentive to trust their subtle instructions.
Nudges interfere with human dignity
This naturally leads to questions regarding manipulation and dignity. First, without going as far as some nightmare sci-fi scenarios, we may dislike the idea that governments or corporations may place nudges at the service of private interests or arbitrary power. The almost invisible nature of nudge influence makes this thought even more so disturbing, as people may simply be manipulated without being aware of it. But nudges pose a problem for human dignity as well.
“Nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child.”
Philosopher Jeremy Waldron writes that “nudging takes advantage of my deficiencies in the way one indulges a child”, while telling us that our choosing is really what is good for us. This condescending way of presenting people with “options” is what violates people’s dignity, as it assumes them to be incapable of choosing their own ends. Again, this brings us back to the lack of transparency in how nudges operate and the fact that agents are rarely aware that they are nudged.
Nudges make use of human limitations
Another problem with nudges is their mechanism. As we saw, they are designed to trigger parts of the brain that produce quicker, more automatic, less aware reactions. They also make use of pre-existing human fallibilities, such as a tendency to be biased, to use default positions, to favour status quo, etc. In other words, nudges rely on people’s natural cognitive weaknesses, but make use of them to serve our interests. But they do nothing to correct those flawed tendencies, and educate us such that we become better choosers. We may question the value of a decision, if it has been made either accidentally, or through a flawed process, even of that decision does in fact produce a better outcome.
Nudges don’t improve our abilities
Finally, nudges can be seen as a quick-fix, something that puts a plaster on a wound instead of treating it. Investing in education people, providing them with the tools to make informed judgements, encouraging public conversation… all of this seem like sustainable ways of improving our rational skills and capacity to choose. Ideally, we would live in a world where nudges would not be needed at all. This, however, implies two things: that we commit to the idea that people can be educated, and that investing in long term changes is more valuable than cost-effective quick solutions. We now have to see if we are ambitious — (or naïve?) — enough to take this bet.
Does this mean that influence is always a problem for freedom of choice? Not necessarily. Thaler and Sunstein are right to point out that influence is almost unavoidable. We are complex, multi-faceted beings, our background and relationships necessarily shape the way we make decisions. It need not be a problem for freedom. However, the point of a good source of influence should be to help us become better choosers: good child-rearing should produce adults who are able to reflect on their upbringing, endorse their own values with authenticity, learn from their mistakes, and identify the source of their well-being.
I am not sure that this is what nudges are for.
Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, New Haven & London, 2008.
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Ezechiel Thibaud is a visiting assistant lecturer in philosophy at Lingnan University in Hong Kong. She has specialized in moral and political philosophy. Her current research interests include liberal and republican freedom, theories of autonomy, the impact of technology on agency, corporation power and market ethics. She is also the co-host of the Accented Philosophy podcast
. You can reach her at: ezechielthibaud (at) ln.hk.
Cover image by Franki Chamaki on Unsplash.