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Does the Government Know You Better than You Know Yourself?

Is “nudge theory” Big Brother running our lives, or just the medicine we need? 

You know that feeling when you don’t want to think about your IRA and so decide (without really deciding) not to opt in to save for retirement for 40 years and then, 40 years later, you get forced off the company roster with zero savings and shortly thereafter starve in a puddle of your own incompetence on the floor of your local Denny’s bathroom with a half-empty bag of Cheetos only inches away from your fingertips, but just too far to wake you from your everyman stupor of complacency?

That feeling sucks.

But don’t worry! Social scientists know that feeling, too, and they’re here to help. From the largest to the smallest decisions, economists practicing economics — those wolves in wolf’s clothing — have finally convinced the governments of the world of what they’ve been saying all along: that economists know best. And if we listen to them (and we have to listen to them) we don’t have to ruin our lives anymore. Simple enough, right?

Real-talk, though: The eggheads have risen. On both sides of the pond, leaders have decided to use behavioral economics to make us better citizens of the world. But now that Humpty-Dumpty is all up on the wall, is he going to death-panel our parents out of existence or is he just some stupid egg? How should we feel about this social science influencing how we exercise our free will?

In short, it isn’t as bad as we think.

Within the argot of the esteemed academe, nudge theory is the way that economics is entering into our day-to-day. Not quite economics so much as a union between economics and psychology, nudge theory is the branch of social science that tells us that if you paint a picture of a housefly on a urinal in, say, an airport in Amsterdam, the quantity of misfired urine drops by upwards of 80 percent. Or, of more immediate relevance to those of us without connecting flights through the Netherlands, the branch that tells the government that if savings plans are structured so that people have to opt out of saving more rather than the more traditional opt-in plans, people may choose to save as much as 50 percent more.

But that word “nudge” is exactly the sticking point, right? This kind of science smacks of that weird flavor that belongs exclusively to discussions about free will, and leaves a sort of uncomfortable dry feeling in the back of one’s throat. They say it’s not coercion; it just coerces us. But a rose by any other name…

Rather than try to reach above my pay grade and try to hash all that out, though, I’ll just point out that this argument is more of a moot point than it might seem: Regardless of how we feel about it, we’re being “nudged” with or without a formal theory telling governments the best way to go about it. Advertisements everywhere suggest in the cleverest possible ways how to make terrible choices, and the layout of stores has long included subtle ways to make us purchase more; you know that shelf next to the cashier that’s always stacked with sweets? One of the implicit findings of the research that shows automatic enrollment encourages participation, is that systems without automatic enrollment conversely discourage participation by the same mechanism — it’s all a matter of perspective. So given that we can’t escape this kind of influence, do we want our governments consciously trying to apply it for (what they consider) our benefit? It’s valid to dislike all sorts of this type of subtle coercion, but we have to also recognize that nudge theory showed up late to the party; our criticism needs must include all sorts of marketing as well.

Of course, it’s perfectly valid to question where this kind of research is going to take us as a society — in the same way that it’s important to note that a tacit goal of medical sciences is the defeat of death, and to consider that goal with a healthy dose of critique. The concern that this behavioral science works to deteriorate our freedoms and subtly increase the power of institutions over our lives is important and should be taken into account. But at the same time that misgivings about immortality shouldn’t necessarily prevent us from seeing the doctor about a fever, free will should maybe come second, for now, to the discovery and use of tools that gently help people save for the future and tangibly improve their lives. They’re already exposed to Denny’s ads as it is, and we all know where that can lead.

Image© Catherine Lane


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