Are You Willing to Be Nudged Into Making the Right Decision?

You can “nudge” people into making better choices at the grocery store.

Photo by FRED DUFOUR/AFP/Getty Images

Modernity is the ultimate temptress. Credit cards make it easy to purchase consumer goods that we neither need nor can afford. The Internet offers every sort of distraction from the voyeuristic pleasures of Facebook to mindless browsing of Wikipedia. Food that neither nourishes nor satisfies beckons, and we follow, filling our growing bellies with abandon. The enticements are many, the restraints few. We blame ourselves, but we shouldn’t. Our brains evolved to deal with deprivation rather than plenty, and when the smorgasbord of contemporary living is placed before us, we feast as if we were still wandering the savanna, searching for sustenance. If we are weak-willed, it is only because evolution designed us that way.

To counteract these natural tendencies, we need help. In their influential book Nudge, economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein outlined a broad program for improving the outcomes of human decisions. They showed how nudges—small changes in the world around us—can improve the decisions we make. For instance, a tool called ToneCheck can prompt you to temper potentially inflammatory language in an email. Or take the classic grocery-store example: If unhealthy foods are moved to a less convenient location and healthy foods to a more convenient location, people are more likely to choose healthy foods. They dubbed the strategy “libertarian paternalism”: libertarian because the choice of whether to purchase healthy or unhealthy food is preserved, but paternalistic because someone has decided what the design of the grocery store will be, and that someone is influencing our decisions.

Sensing an opportunity both to help people and to reduce costs, governments on both the left and the right have been among the most enthusiastic proponents of nudges. The first Obama administration brought Cass Sunstein in as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where he oversaw the development of government-wide regulations that nudge people toward better decisions, from replacing the classic but complicated food pyramid with the simpler food plate, to making enrollment in health care plans the default option. If anything, the Conservative government of David Cameron in Great Britain has been even more fervent in its pursuit of nudges, establishing a Behavioural Insights Team in 2010 with Richard Thaler as adviser.

Sunstein returned to Harvard after Obama’s re-election, but nudges are alive and well in Washington: Just last month, the White House announced that it will be developing something akin to the British Behavioral Insights Team, and that group will not only administer nudges but also carry out experiments, along the lines of randomized clinical trials, to determine which nudges work best.

Nudging is not without its critics. Those with libertarian sensibilities are predictably outraged, worrying that nudging infringes upon autonomy—the ability of people to choose for themselves. The conservative columnist David Brooks recently came out with a partial endorsement of nudging, reasoning that it’s no more than soft paternalism and is unlikely to give way to the kind of Orwellian dystopia that its opponents fear most.

The debate is not likely to go away anytime soon, but recent work in experimental neuroethics shows that the infringement upon autonomy may not be as worrisome as some might imagine. Together with my collaborator Gidon Felsen at the University of Colorado and our peripatetic research assistant Noah Castelo, we carried out experiments that explored how people feel about nudges in general, and particularly whether they worried about the purported loss of autonomy.  Using the crowdsourcing website Mechanical Turk, we polled 2,775 people, asking them to what degree they were willing to trade autonomy for better outcomes when presented with nudges that helped with everything from healthier food choices to spending money more wisely. The short answer is just what one might expect: Sometimes they liked the nudges and other times they didn’t. When we presented people with nudges that clearly allowed them to deliberate on the issue—to fully authenticate the decision—participants in our surveys were more receptive than when the nudges appeared to manipulate them by tapping into subconscious thinking. But overall people were not terribly averse to being gently pushed in the “right” direction. Apparently, autonomy is not quite as exalted a value as libertarians might believe.

But it is hardly the case that everyone was enthusiastic about being nudged. People who felt confident in their ability to make good decisions about healthy eating or spending money wisely were less comfortable about being nudged than those who knew they needed help. It was not that they thought that spending money wisely was a bad idea, but rather that they were less amenable to giving up autonomy if they felt they could do it themselves (Let’s set aside for a moment the rejoinder that people are not very good at such self-assessments, as detailed in Nobel Laureate Daniel Kahnemen’s 2011 book Thinking, Fast and Slow.) On the other hand, when people recognized that their objectives in life aligned with the nudge and knew that they were struggling with achieving that objective, they generally endorsed the nudge. 

It seems that the autonomy violations of nudging are most acceptable when people recognize that if left to their own devices, they are more likely to follow their lusty desires than their sober life objectives. When people are self-aware enough to recognize that they need help, when they understand the inherent weakness of their own will, autonomy takes a back seat. This finding neatly addresses the key libertarian objection—that people might not be able to choose for themselves—by showing that when nudges let people align the outcomes of their decisions with what they really want to achieve, the nudge effectively enhances autonomy.

In a world awash with temptation, a mark of wisdom might be taking a hard look at ourselves and understanding the reality of our natural strengths and weaknesses. Were we to do so, we would likely welcome a helpful nudge now and then.