Is it better to nudge or think?

I attended a really interesting seminar recently, where Manchester and Southampton Universities presented the findings from research experiments they’ve been conducting looking at whether ‘nudges’ and deliberation can be used to increase civic behaviour. I joined panellists including the RSA’s chief exec Matthew Taylor and ResPublica’s Phillip Blond to offer some thoughts on the research findings and what the implications were for public bodies and voluntary and community groups. Here’s what I had to say….

“Like many I’ve been struck by the powerful potential of behavioural economics and using nudges for socially useful purposes and it was fascinating to read the research findings. I have to say I was a bit disappointed. Not by the quality of the research or how interesting it was to read. But by the findings themselves. In many instances the difference the nudges made were not statistically significant. And where they were, the savings were extremely modest (even compared with the low cost of nudging). There are a few exceptions – 22% book donations – but it’s hardly the radical transformation we need in civic society.

I found the findings on the differential impact nudges had on different groups very interesting. Seemingly deliberation doesn’t engage those who are disengaged. And I think there is actually a risk of exacerbating inequality in participation. The findings from nudging were more promising, as an increase is seemingly more likely from those with lower starting points (though this is probably inevitable).

I think there’s a risk that with people falling over themselves to show their love of Thaler and Sunstein, we blindly accept some of the philosophical undertones of behavioural economic theory. For some, the attraction of nudging is its implied suggestion that people are unable to make informed decisions. This has led others to suggest that it’s manipulative and paternalistic. But it’s something of a pandora’s box…once you know how you design choices affects people’s decisions, you can’t ignore the significance of how you present choices. But I worry about it being used inappropriately (like any tool) and the old adage ‘it’s funny how everything looks like a nail, when you only have a hammer in your toolbox springs to mind. Certain aspects of policy and behaviour change lend themselves more to nudging and deliberation, but I think this is still unclear precisely when they are appropriate to use.

Ethics are an issue and ought to be addressed. Social Research have ethical standards and I think we probably need something similar to apply to the use of nudges.  Do we need to nudge the nudgers to behave responsibly?

I think the most important finding from all the experiments was that doing this stuff requires a major change in how public sector bodies work – this highlighted particularly in response rates by councillors to constituents’ letters (18.5%) and that less than 10% of offers of civic participation translated into action. That has huge implications on public policy. It occurs to me that it’d be really interesting to turn this on its head and find ways to ‘nudge’ public sector bodies to change their ways of doing things.

If we want to increase levels of civic participation and encourage civil society, it’s imperative that public sector bodies work in different ways to enable this (and to get out of the way when they are obstacles). Citizens may want to take over services (they may not) but wouldn’t it be easier for them to nudge the institutions we have into working more effectively and creatively to support community led change?

Toby Blume

Chief Executive

Urban Forum

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Tel: 020 7253 4816                     Fax: 020 7253 4817

Urban Forum is the trading name of Diverse Cities, a company limited by guarantee, number 3418682, and a registered charity, number 1096131. Registered address: 33 Corsham Street, London N1 6DR.




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