Three authors misunderstanding nudges

David Berreby’s critique of nudging
Jeremy Waldron’s critique of nudging
Steven Poole’s critique of nudging

I am being nudged and I know it. Worse yet, in some cases I literally know the person nudging me. Google is well-known for its behavioral researchers in People Operations, and a friend from graduate school is one of their “nudgers”. When I go into a kitchen and see healthy snacks prominently displayed and the unhealthy snacks hidden away in opaque jars, I know I’m being manipulated (this was literally my friend’s research). When I get an email comparing my retirement contributions to my peers, I know what effect they are drawing upon. Indeed there are researchers I know at CMU using the same techniques to encourage energy conservation. And yet, these nudges influence me just the same. How can that be?

An argument that all three of these pieces make is that nudging depends upon the ignorance of the populace in order to be effective. And this is an affront to human dignity.

Berreby writes,

If the “nudge” works correctly, you can’t evaluate the attempt to influence you, because you aren’t aware of it.

Waldron writes,

Sunstein says he is committed to transparency, but he does acknowledge that some nudges have to operate “behind the back” of the chooser.

Poole writes,

Nudging depends on our cognitive biases being reliably exploitable, and a Stanovichian programme of mindware upgrades would interfere with that. In this sense, nudge politics is at odds with public reason itself: its viability depends precisely on the public not overcoming their biases.

All three of these authors make the same mistake, that awareness / unawareness are binary, that “mindware upgrades” can lead to a person free of bias, which is at odds with the nudgers goals. As I alluded to in my account of being nudged above, however, knowledge of biases does not equate to expertise in overcoming them. As Wilson and Brekke argued in their fantastic (classic) paper “Mental Contamination”, actually correcting for a bias involves the following steps:
1. Awareness of unwanted processing through introspection or application of theory.
2. Motivation to correct bias (I’ll come back to this one)
3. Awareness of direction and magnitude of the bias
4. Ability to adjust response via mental control

So, to describe this in terms of the snack example above. I come into the kitchen–if I’m not in a hurry then I might think about how the snacks are laid out. Then, being aware of the bias I think, “Do I just grab the fruit or am I motivated to engage in extra effort to grab the candy?” Then, when weighing the two options, I might consider “how much is the layout pushing me to grab the fruit?” That last question is quite hard to answer! It’s impossible to introspect to access my unbiased preference, and anyway, even if I could, I now have this biased preference all the same–will it affect my enjoyment of the candy if I override my default reaching for the fruit? That last point is key–Hal Arkes, in another classic paper, “Costs and benefits of judgment errors: Implications for debiasing”, points out that preference biases, which he calls psychophysical errors, (like risk aversion, for instance) present themselves as what we want. One doesn’t change the nature of one’s preferences (the heart wants what it wants)–in the best case one can reframe those options. So once the accessibility of the fruit makes it more desirable, knowing that it was accessibility-driven makes it no less desirable seeming.

I want to say one more thing on this Straussian idea of elites scheming to apply the psychological effects on the unsuspecting masses. I think it’s important to keep in mind that the techniques that are most likely to work as nudges are the most time-honored and well-known techniques from psychology! So the basis for the most effective nudges are likely to be the manipulations that are the most widely known. This provides an important check on the scheming of “Government House utilitarianism”, as Waldron quotes Bernard Williams describing this setup.

Therefore, knowledge how (or that) we are being manipulated in many cases will have no bearing whatsoever on whether the nudges work. We can safely continue on our “Stanovichian programme of mindware upgrades”, as Poole puts it. (Stanovich is a psychologist who writes about using meta-cognition to overcome biases). Psychologists, Cass Sunstein included, would like to see people more aware of how their mind works!

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