Social Icons

Sunday 11 November 2012

Don't Nudge Me, Bro

I admit I haven't processed this fully, meaning I'm uncertain how I feel about this thing called "Nudge Theory."  From Australia's Radio National Sunday Extra page, where I found it:
Governments everywhere use carrots and sticks to discourage anti-social behaviour. For example, discouraging smoking by making it expensive, restricting advertising and limiting where you can smoke.

But what about nudging citizens to make good choices? Can a government gently push us to pay our taxes or lose weight?

The UK is so impressed by this idea that PM David Cameron has set up a 'behavioural insight unit', and a senior member of the unit is heading over here to teach the NSW government to use nudge theory.
(Quick aside: I'm racking my brain here trying to recall anything about Cameron's Behavioural Insight Unit. Bejeesus, that sounds Orwellian to me.  Did I know about it before today?  Did I choose to forget? Was I out of the country that day?  WTF? [over])

Here is an audio interview about nudge theory with Richard Thaler, who is one of the "fathers" of this concept. It's under 10 minutes in length.

OK, so if I got this right, Richard Thaler's nudge theory means don't try to force people to change, instead nudge them in the right direction of the change you want. People who want to change, e.g. smokers who want to quit, will be better served by a nudge; and those who don't want to quit the nudge won't be of any benefit. It's a fascinating concept.  I find it fascinating because I am utterly used to being bludgeoned to near-death by our government's relentless assault on smokers, drinkers and chubby folk, as well as anything else that the Public Health minions deem necessary for our personal survival.

But in respect of plain packaging and our UK government's tendency to pass laws against the will of the public, I have to wonder:  Are plain packs a nudge or are they a heavy hammer blow to the face? Because plain packaging is also a theory. It's unproven. None of the tobacco control industry's overtly-biased studies prove conclusively that plain packaging will work to reduce smoking rates.

Indeed, I just read this plain packaging in Australia article from the Sugar Free Products web site [What? You don't think the sugar industry is concerned about plain packaging? No slippery slope, no domino effect to other industries? Please. We all know what's coming. So does the sugar industry, and the drinks industry, and every other "villainous" soon-to-be-a-pariah-industry out there.] which reads (emphasis added):
The introduction of plain packaging on tobacco products is expected to have mixed results for the industry, Burgio-Ficca adds. While it is expected that the short-term effect of plain packaging will be minimal, it is hoped that the new packaging will have a long-term effect by reducing the appeal of smoking to younger consumers.

Tobacconists and other specialised grocery retailers are forecast to achieve modest growth over the next five years. The introduction of plain packaging on tobacco products from 1 December 2012 will have a minimal effect on cigarette sales, though the industry may be affected by a rise in demand for cigarettes on the black market as all packets will look the same and will be easier to copy.
You see, it is not known what plain packaging will do, except that pretty much everyone outside of the tobacco control industry agrees that plain packs will enhance and increase the illicit and counterfeit markets. The tobacco control industry knows it will happen, yet they steadfastly maintain that counterfeit cigarettes are not harmful, i.e. "smoke 'em if you get 'em... and die, smoker."  Jerks.

Back to Thaler's nudge theory. On the surface, I'm fairly certain that I have no issues with a gentle nudge in the right direction. It doesn't take away my ability to make the choice. It may be leading me to make a certain choice, but my few remaining brain cells can override the nudge and I can still do whatever suits me. As a theory, it's pretty benign in its implementation, and it seems honest in its approach to guide people to do whatever the supposedly "right thing" may be.

Yet I also worry that the psychological aspect of "nudge" could be horrifically abused by governments (and fake charities) by exploiting a person's potential guilt for the gain of a particular cause or campaign.  CRUK's plain packs video using children comes to mind. That video is designed to make you feel something for the children, to turn off your ability to reason and think about what you are actually seeing, and to respond accordingly against adult consumers of tobacco products.  All because you were "nudged" in the direction of "protect the children." Hell, you weren't even nudged. You were thrown to the floor and stomped on. But that's all right. Anything is worth it for the children. A steel-toed boot kick in the face is akin to a nudge to tobacco controllers. Yeah?

Indeed, a "nudge" from a government agency, vested interests, or a huge multinational industry could be quite insidious and intrusive, and you might not even be aware of it.  Thaler notes in the audio interview linked above that when his utilities company bills him for the power he used, he also sees how much power his neighbours are using (albeit, I imagine the actual names and addresses are not given ... at least I hope those aren't shown on the bill). That's an awesome nudge to force someone to reduce their power consumption:

"The Joneses are only consuming five-eighths of the gas and electricity that you use, Mr Powerwaster.  Perhaps you might want to reconsider that big screen TV, surround sound system, the 2000-watt mains-powered dildo, and the Friday night disco bash you host for your crossdressing mates in your garage each week. We know what you're doing. Just sayin'." 

To be clear, I'm not picking on Thaler here (or disco-loving crossdressers). Because when you listen to Thaler he's quite rational and sane about the application of his theory, I think. He wants it to be tested properly and thoroughly, and if the application of a nudge doesn't work for something, then don't use it. In fact, he agrees that perhaps there are some things that people should not be nudged to do, but rather simply asked, such as in the case of organ donations. Ask, don't force an opt-in.  I haven't read anything he's written about his theory, so I really cannot comment further about his views and theory.

So I'm on the fence. I don't mind the idea of being gently nudged by powerful vested interests towards whatever goal they seek, so long as their nudge isn't enshrined in law or some other punitive device that patently infringes on my freedom and civil liberties. But I get the feeling that if the UK government truly embraces the idea of the nudge to make people stop doing the things people want to do, then it will be abused.

And if that happens, I will be the first to stand up and say, "Don't nudge me, bro!"