Open nudges

So what is manipulation, and why do we hate it? I think it is best viewed as behaviour with the purpose of influencing another person, but which works only if that purpose is concealed. It is the secrecy that really outrages us (with a tinge of humiliation, perhaps, because we were taken in). Manipulation is a form of deceit.

Nick Chater, Professor of Behaviour Science at Warwick Business School, attended the recent Behaviour Exchange conference, organised by the UK Government’s “nudge unit.” He came away somewhat concerned about the potential abuse of nudges, and he suggests the the above definition of manipulation could help clarify when we should or shouldn’t nudge.

Doesn’t putting these psychological insights, however well-meaning, into government policy amount to state manipulation of the people? Yet once we understand the nature of manipulation, the remedy is clear. Avoiding it means avoiding deception: a good, honest, nudge is one that works even when we know we are being nudged, and why. But the spell cast by a bad, manipulative, nudge is broken as soon as its secret is revealed.

I’ve had some of the same concerns about nudges (and the idea of “behavior change” in general). In the past, I’ve suggested that we’d be better off thinking about creating opportunities than changing behavior. I’ve also recognized that there are cases (such as the soda ban law in New York), nudges have value because they work as a sort of counter-nudge.

Although I still very much believe that most of what I do is about creating opportunties where they may not have been there before, I do like Chater’s definition of manipulation as a way of answering the question of whether or not we should be nudging. If New York had succeed in limiting soda sizes, this would have worked as the kind of open nudge that Chater suggests we use. As would sending patients a text to let them know how much money will be wasted if they don’t turn up to their GP appointment.

I’m certainly be more comfortable with these types of nudges. That said, Chater admits that the the jury is still out on the effectiveness of these types of nudges.

But which nudges still work, even when they are out in the open? Do we still eat less ice-cream with a bowl labelled “smaller bowls for smaller servings”? The research remains to be done. On the one hand, we might think: “How thoughtful, this is a great way to save myself from over-indulgence.” A good nudge. But we might react with irritation and have an extra helping to “fight back”.

I’ll be very interested to see what the results of the research are. In the mean time, I’ll be adding the idea of an open nudge (as opposed to a manipulative one) to my toolkit.