With everyone going long on Nudge, perhaps it is time to consider the short position. A little due diligence is a good thing, isn’t it? Begin with a fair recap on Nudge.
Nudge claims (web, blog, and book) that a persuasion play called “choice architecture” will have large, observable, and practical effects in public policy. Through selection and sequencing of choice options, people can be nudged to make the wise move. Smart people acclaim this claim and, stop me if you’ve heard this before, note it flows from Nobel-prize winning research. Nudge is the intellectual’s tool of choice: bright, nuanced, effective. Please, do your own search on Nudge to verify its value, reputation, and impact.
But, Nudge will not work. Consider then select from the following choice options.
1. If Nudge works, why tell anyone? Nudge is proposed as one powerful persuasion play that could change elections, marketplaces, gee whiz, Life As We Know It. If it’s that good, you don’t need to talk about it. Just Do It and get what you want . . . if it really works. Yet, Nudgers are talking about it and not doing it.
2. Nudge does not produce large, observable, and practical effects. While Nudges can produce real effects in the real world, these will be, at best, small. In other words, you’ll need a statistician to find or invent them. My reading of this research literature and my practical experience as a Federal government administrator in both the Clinton and Bush administrations would view the Nudge effects as small. This is not a quantitative quibble between gearhead bean counters, but a Big Deal because of my next point.
3. The Federal Government eats small effects for appetizers. As anyone who’s worked in the Executive Branch knows, one GS-5 in the action path can unintentionally kill a small effect and no one will know it. A year after Nudging, the Nudge Czar will ask to see a report. The Czar will then find several disconcerting typos and grammatical errors, omissions and revisions that inexplicably penetrated those deeply nuanced Nudges, rendering them inert, incoherent, or, more likely, counter-poised to produce the wrong choice. And no one will know how this happened. That’s just what the Fed does with anything involving nuance – with nuance being another way of saying “small effects.”
4. Nudge is not new. While the Cool Table is pulling up a chair for Nudge as the New New Thing, it is not. Since the 1970s a dazzling and diverse array of researchers have explored the “dual process” models of cognition, of which Nudge is neither the newest or oldest, best or worst. Nudge and “choice architecture” can be classified as a persuasion cue that operates with low WATT processors ambling along the peripheral route. Thus, fundamental ideas of Nudge are well known, widespread, and most importantly, already available in the marketplace of ideas, markets, and government. Nudge thus operates at a discount.
5. Nudgers have lost the element of surprise. Assume I’m wrong on everything I’ve written so far. Nudge is new, exciting, different, large, and practical. It will work exactly as claimed. Except now everyone on the other side of a Nudge knows it and can move to defeat it. How? I can think of two killer counterattacks off the top of my head. But, I’m not a Nudger who tells everyone in advance how I’m going to Nudge them. If you Nudge, do you really think I’m the only citizen who’s got a bead on this?
6. Nudge is transparent and self-confessed bias. Nudgers offer choice architecture as a libertarian paternalism for handling the great mass of unsophisticated citizens daily making self-destructive choices. Nudge saves them from themselves. Anyone who claims to be a Master of Persuasion and then draws a bright and shining line between the few sophisticated sources and the great mass of unsophisticated receivers is at once more maladroit and less Machiavellian, a terrible proportion for a change agent.
7. If Nudge works, it’s not because of the Nudge. Again, imagine I’m wrong (take a seat by my wife, she’ll tell the rest of that story). If good outcomes flow from clever Nudges, I’ll argue under the auspices of that other Chicago school philosopher, Al Capone, who noted: You can get farther with a kind word and a gun than with a kind word alone. Nudges, the kind words, will always take place within the Fed Gun of fine, imprisonment, or public humiliation. Sure, Nudge’s persuasive. Yeah. Nudge and me. And, what, this little thing called an indictment?
8. Nudgers have not thought the idea through to its end. Readers grab onto the shiny, bright, and facile features of Nudge – it makes the world a better place, it’s based on Nobel Prize winning research, it is subtle – and do not think the idea out far at all. How is Nudge like other existing ideas? What is a “large” or “practical” impact? What happens when you move from the lab to the Federal government? Just how easy and effective can something be when the “other guy” knows about it? Can you get both Harry Reid and Mitch McConnell to support it? How will the Supreme Court judge laws and regulations confounded with persuasion tactics?
9. Nudge won’t work because the Republicans have already tried it. Didn’t the Bush Administration use Nudge in the run-up to the war in Iraq? Recall the selection and sequencing of choice options the Administration used. Remember, then, that nearly 70% of American citizens supported the invasion. It’s not as catchy as “Bush Lied, People Died,” but “Bush Nudged, People Judged” is the more accurate bumper sticker.
10. Finally, Nudge won’t work in the Federal government because the government already has an effective change tool: Push. You don’t do something as small, fragile, and ephemeral as Nudge when you can simply walk up to citizens and Push. Governments just call it something like Nudge to divert your attention.
So, what’s the due diligence on Nudge? If you’re doing research, writing for the chattering classes, or looking for a seat at the Cool Table, go long on Nudge. Otherwise, go short, pull up a chair, and enjoy the show (audio clip with script).