50 Pages Posted: 9 May 2015 Last revised: 8 Jun 2016
Date Written: February 17, 2016
In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate about the ethical questions associated with “nudges,” understood as approaches that steer people in certain directions while maintaining their freedom of choice. Evidence about people’s views cannot resolve the ethical questions, but in democratic societies (and nondemocratic ones as well), those views will inevitably affect what public officials are willing to do. Existing evidence, including a nationally representative survey, supports six general conclusions. First, there is widespread support for nudges of the kind that democratic societies have adopted or seriously considered in the recent past; surprisingly, that support can be found across partisan lines. While people tend to have serious objections to mandates as such, they do not have similar objections to nudges. Second, the support evaporates when people suspect the motivations of those who are engaged in nudging, and when they fear that because of inertia and inattention, citizens might end up with outcomes that are inconsistent with their interests or their values. Third, there appears to be somewhat greater support for nudges that appeal to conscious, deliberative thinking than for nudges that affect subconscious or unconscious processing, though this conclusion is highly qualified, and there can be widespread approval of the latter as well (especially if they are meant to combat self-control problems). Fourth, people’s assessment of nudges in general will be greatly affected by the political valence of the particular nudges that they have in mind (or that are brought to their minds). Fifth, transparency about nudging will not, in general, reduce the effectiveness of nudges, because most nudges are already transparent, and because people will not, in general, rebel against nudges. Sixth, there is preliminary but suggestive evidence of potential “reactance” against certain nudges.
Keywords: nudge, choice architecture, default rules, social norms
JEL Classification: D03, D10, D11, D18, D60, D80, K0, K2
Suggested Citation: Suggested Citation