Policy Briefing: The Nudge Business

Policy Briefing: The Nudge Business

Geof Rayner

“Engineering shifts in social norms is a far from trivial task.” (Mind, Society and Behavior: World Development Report 2015. Washington, DC: The World Bank Group; 2015.)

Behavioural analysis has moved from the academy into the messy world of public policy. Almost any topic today seemingly requires behavioural consideration, or to employ recent World Bank terminology, the ‘engineering’ of social norms. This approach may be largely American inspired but it’s the UK which now claims leadership. It is said that this enterprise is novel, grounded in Nobel-accredited science, and, defying statist urges, authentically non-authoritarian. Whether described as Behavioural Economics, Behavioural Science, or simply Nudge, advocates say that it can help transform or compensate for the irrational or poorly judged biases of actors, institutions and social processes. If analysis of the reality, and not merely the claims for this approach, needs a proper programme of research, it is still possible, I argue, to assess one of its critical dimensions, namely the values and biases of the field itself, particularly as applied by its leading advocates.

The focus on behaviour is hardly new but attaching behavioural analysis to public policy might seem to be. Historically speaking, it isn’t of course. In Britain the state has tried to enforce behavioural norms at least since the time of the Sumptuary Laws.  And, as Karl Polanyi pointed out decades ago – Britain’s 1834 New Poor Law was devised principally to enforce working class compliance to the new rules of urban capitalism – a fact which utilitarians like Edwin Chadwick enunciated perfectly.  If the Poor Law was about social control, it’s been argued that later commercial progress provided enlightenment. Economic historian Joel Mokyr has made the case that a century or more ago new soap and hygiene companies, like Proctor and Gamble in the USA and Lever Brothers (now Unilever) in Britain, used their newly gained prowess in product marketing and supply chain management to shift the behavioural rules of personal cleanliness. Public health was significantly boosted as a consequence.

Mokyr’s analysis failed to take this argument forward in time. If market actors can stimulate behavioural ‘improvements’ they can also subvert them. Unilever today serves around 2 billion customers on any given day through its 1,000 brands. In fact, it is considered one of the better the food and drink companies, which in toto have forced a reshaping of consumer behaviour towards food resulting in a nutrition transition and rampant food-related diseases.  In the present age of always-on, immersive social media, the question is where substantive ‘public content’ ends and commercial content begins; indeed it has been argued that the distinction has already collapsed. 1 This fact too might have been a central topic for the burgeoning field of behavioural science but it strangely isn’t. In fact the negative effect of these commercial cultural forces receives barely any attention, and analysis tends to default to the innate characteristics of mind rather than the changing dynamics of the increasingly commercialised cultural environment.

Less than a decade ago the shift from theory to practice was stimulated by just one word: Nudge. Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 2008 book of this name, with a quarter of a million sales worldwide, made it a shorthand for behaviourially-based policy thinking as such. In fact, its core intellectualisation was hardly their’s alone. The big early ideas originated with psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky and it is their observations on the direction and biases of human thinking which have been taken up across the field. Put very simply, Kahneman and Tversky give primary attention to the tension between habits (automatic thinking) and deliberation (cognitive processes and competence).  In effect, they argue, it is former which rules the latter. In 2002 Kahneman was awarded the Nobel Prize (Tversky died in 1996), for having ‘integrated insights from psychology into economics, thereby laying the foundation for a new field of research.’

These do seem like novel ideas and certainly no essay in behavioural psychology can pass muster unless they are mentioned. In fact, the theme of mind-body automaticity was established more than century ago in the writings of the so-called Pragmatist school, including scientists like CS Peirce and philosophers/ social psychologists like William James, George Herbert Mead and John Dewey. James, the originator of functional psychology (ie a post-Darwinian perspective on the development of mind), described automaticity, or habit, as the ‘giant flywheel of society’. For him, the most individualistically-oriented of these thinkers, habit was not simply a matter of individual psychology but held profound social ramifications. For one, it kept the working classes in their place. For Dewey, known mostly today as an educational theorist, the analysis of habit was fundamental. Even so, he saw deliberation as the progressive aspect of social life. Deliberation (a word plainly borrowed by later theorists) wasn’t limited to individual minds but made democracy into a social force, providing the grounds for resistance to commercial and political manipulation.  Dewey’s thinking seems sorely needed today as such themes are far removed from the current crop of behavioural theorists. It is all done under the name of ‘science’.

These older psychologies and old sociology, receive short shrift in the World Bank’s 2015 Report, ‘Mind, Society and Behavior’, largely constructed around Kahneman/Tversky’s psychologised economics. This substantial report begins with their ‘two systems of thinking’ (the habitual and the deliberative) and gives their account of the psychological biases said to filter human reasoning. If their insight is an important one (although hardly original, as noted), the primary defect of the report is that it ignores or sidelines alternative perspectives. For example, one section on the feedback of poverty to neurological consequences ignores the formative research of epidemiologists like Sir Michael Marmot (or Geoffrey Rose before him) or the World Health Organisation’s Commission on the Social Determinants of Health. This too might be a form of bias!  Furthermore, the report unhelpfully separates the cultural and the practical. In its commentary on sanitation in poor countries, for example, and on the practice of open defecation in rural India, it portrays shame as a useful mechanism to prompt people into using toilets. Looking at their own evidence, however, the authors are forced to admit that changing social norms cannot compensate for the lack of public toilets!

The World Bank’s report is the product of scores of contributors. Nudge, as noted, is the work of just two. Thaler is known in Britain through his links to the behavioural initiatives supported by the British government. His status here is that of a disinterested academic.  In fact, like his other Chicago University colleagues, he is also a finance industry player being a principal of the eponymous investment group, Fuller and Thaler (by-line ‘The Behavioural Edge’). His lawyer colleague Sunstein, also with him at Chicago University (law department), was a former academic colleague of President Obama. To push his connections further, his wife, Samantha Power, is current US ambassador to the UN.  It must have been of no surprise that in Obama’s first term of office Sunstein was placed in charge of the government’s ‘super regulator’, the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA), a position later referred to by Sunstein as ‘the cockpit of the regulatory state’. It was thus an opportunity to apply practical, not just, theoretical, Nudge thinking to the practice of government. What actually happened?

As an academic Sunstein had written copiously on regulation, social norms and social justice. On the environment, however, his pronouncements drew little support from environmentalists. If Sunstein accepted the reality of climate change he thought that it was not up to the US government to do anything about it, apart from the small matter of helping poor countries mitigate. With regard the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), subject to assaults by conservative policy makers over decades, chiefly by the imposition of cost-benefit analysis (CBA) to overrule precautionary thinking, Sunstein emerged not just as a trenchant critic of precautionary thinking but equally keen to use CBA to thwart it. In a book on his OIRA experience (entitled ‘Simpler: The Future of Government’) Sunstein recounted how he used his position to “say no to members of the president’s Cabinet”, to deposit “highly touted rules, beloved by regulators, onto the shit list”; and to impose CBA “wherever the law allowed”.  Nudge, it should be noted, is described as the application of ‘liberal paternalism’. Here it emerges as a personalised mode of authoritarian neoliberalism. To the question of how this could have happened under a supposedly liberal president the answer given by The New Republic magazine at the time was that the new ‘Nudge-ocracy’ represented the president’s “deep respect for the market” and his wish to “minimize the state’s footprint on it.” In effect, in his first term at least, Main Street kow-towed to Wall Street.

In the 2013 book, ‘Never Let a Serious Crisis Go to Waste: How Neoliberalism Survived the Financial Meltdown’, Philip Mirowski’s uproarious account of the 2007 economic crash he observes how his Chicago University counterparts had effectively ‘dodged the bullet’ (of blame) although their theoretical prognostications about markets were plainly implicated in the imbroglio. It was they, said Mirowski, who provided the intellectual cover for securitisation (ie collateralised debt obligations) and who championed privatised regulation. Nevertheless, the book fails to mention how this catalogue of horrors was rewarded. In 2008, the Chicago School of Business received $300 million from its former student, David Booth, head of Dimension Fund Advisors, to “aggressively” attract and retain “star faculty”.

In 2015 Richard Thaler became president of the American Economic Association, to be followed by Robert Shiller, a man of a similar intellectual disposition. Behavioural economics has been lauded as the alternative to ‘economic man’ thinking. It isn’t at all, it is just a modification, a backtracking on some neoliberal maxims. In response to calls for tighter regulation of Wall Street in the wake of the crash, Thaler’s own response to quote himself. No extra regulation: ‘just nudge’.2

Obama’s support for Wall Street and appointment of Sunstein compares with New Labour’s ‘light touch’ regulation of the City and its own behavioural perspective on public policy. Cameron’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) effectively began under Blair. As regards obesity, for example, large expenditures were made on soft measures, like social marketing, in order to shift the social norms rather than taking tougher measures as required by the chief scientist’s Foresight study.

David Halpern, head of this BIT claimed similarity between his role and Sunstein’s at OIRA, and referred to him as ‘his opposite number in Washington’. Not only is the comparison hardly exact, but in later documents from the BIT Halpern is flamboyantly referred to as “‘Thought Leader’ at the BIT. This organisation, now in a privatised guise, touts for work across the globe”. The BIT maintains support from the highest reaches of government and has received positive coverage from the Financial Times (a marked contrast from its review by the House of Lords, Science and Technology Committee review)

BIT today is a profit-making enterprise, with stakeholders including NESTA and individual team members. This latter aspect of its affairs again drew the attention of the Financial Times and the back pages of Private Eye. The FT noted that Halpern’s total reimbursement package was considerably more than the Prime Minister’s. Private Eye, objecting to the fact that it had been denied BIT’s financial reports, argued that its profits – some £1.5 million – were made “almost entirely from charging the government eye-watering rates for work it used to do itself” (including the rate of £3,800 a day for Halpern).  For just a few pounds, it remarked, Halpern had been given a 7.5% personal stake in the company worth millions.  The Head of Nesta, Geoff Mulgan (a former advisor to Gordon Brown) noted in his company’s blog of 19 June 2015 that pay rates in the financial sector and ‘rewards of all kinds’ were a lot higher ‘than any reasonable person could justify”.  That would also seem to be true also in his own organisation.

Behaviour is a legitimate focus for social science. It could hardly not be. More critical analysis of what its advocates call a ‘behavioural science’, but which appears more as a list of formulae and precepts, is long overdue. As I have shown here there is already a case for a more thorough examination of Nudge as a business.  Indeed, in the light of the biases of its leading advocates and emergent conflicts of interest, the case seems overwhelming.

Bond S. Lines blur between advertising and children’s entertainment. Financial Times 14th September. 2014.
Thaler R. Rethinking Regulation after the Financial Crisis and Oil Spill: A Behavioral Approach. Graduate Council Lecture. 20 October 2010, Berkeley CA: University of California at Berkeley, 2010.


Geof Rayner is the author, with Tim Lang, of Ecological Public Health: Reshaping the Conditions for Good Health, Routledge 2012 and the Metabolic Landscape: Perception, Practice and the Energy Transition, with Gina Glover and Jessica Rayner, Black Dog Publishing 2014. He is a former expert adviser to the Department of Health on obesity and an Honorary Research Fellow at City University.