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What the mainstreaming of behavioural nudges reveals about neoliberal government

Most of us think nudge theory is about trivial things, like getting us to drink fewer fizzy drinks or getting men to take better aim at the urinal. We should stop and think harder, however, about the darker side of nudge, and what it tells us about this age of neoliberal government.

Nudges are self-explanatory: they nudge people to make different choices. Through tiny changes to our everyday environments, people with an interest in the choices we make have realised how easily they can influence these choices, often at little cost, and without us ever noticing. It might be through the layout of a supermarket display, the wording of a tax letter or, yes, the etching of house flies on urinals. Nudging targets the many small, unconscious, automatic decisions we all make, all the time. And it does so “for our own good”, or at least that’s what we’re normally told.

It’s easy to see how this might feel manipulative. So it’s perhaps not surprising that the widespread use of nudging by governments has been criticised as such by a diverse chorus. Is it really the job of government to make my choices for me? What if I want to be unhealthy, or aim at a different part of the urinal?

There is something unpalatable in the current cultural obsession with nudge. And we should be doubly alert to it following the near-unanimous media praise which greeted the announcement that Richard Thaler – “godfather” of nudge theory – had won the 2017 Nobel prize in economics.

Target practice? P.Fabian/Shutterstock

Neoliberal nudging

Think of the Nobel Prize as a form of public validation. The winner is the chosen spokesperson for that profession at that time. Granting Thaler the prize in economics is like saying: “This is what good economics looks like, right now.”

So what does behavioural economics – the “science” behind nudging – really look like? First, notice that it’s not about normal economic things like prices, supply chains or demand curves. It’s about us: a population of individuals. More specifically, it’s about our psychologies: our instincts, emotions, and evolved cultural habits. Our uncontrolled impulses and moments of weakness. Nudge seeks to know, categorise and quantify such things, so they can be exploited by governments, corporations, or anyone interested in managing our everyday conduct.

This is the first creed of the contemporary neoliberal approach to government. The term neoliberalism has moved from the academic margins to the journalistic mainstream and caused some misunderstandings and conflicting definitions along the way. A core feature agreed upon by most, however, is that neoliberalism governs a population through the choices and freedoms of individuals.

If there’s an obesity problem, we need individuals to change their lifestyle choices. Climate change? Get people to change their consumption, recycling or travel behaviours. Urinals not doing their job? Get men to pee straighter. An emphasis on the individual as both the cause and the solution for all these problems is a key hallmark of the neoliberal era.

Richard Thaler after winning the Nobel prize. EPA-EFE/TANNEN MAURY

And how exactly does nudge understand our psychological lives? The main headline in work like Thaler’s is that people aren’t as rational as we thought. In other words, most of our decisions aren’t based on perfect cost-benefit calculations of the kind that economists have long assumed and that computers are good at making. This might not come as much of a surprise to most, but for professional economics it has been a game-changer. And of course, perfectly rational is how we should be – who would want to be irrational after all? So the nudgers are there to do the maths for us. They know what’s best for you.

Death of the social

Awarding a Nobel Prize to one of the key figures responsible for bringing the whole gamut of human emotion and inner psychological experience into the realms of economics sends a strong message.

Through the psychology of choice, features of our everyday lives that we might prefer to consider private have become paramount public concerns. They are now the domain of our public institutions of government, for which an economic lens is the sole means of knowing the small thing that former British prime minister, Margaret Thatcher, claimed never existed in the first place: society.

Writing in 1958, Hannah Arendt foresaw in The Human Condition the depoliticising and dehumanising effects when public, social life is increasingly understood via the science of individual behaviour. The behavioural sciences, wrote Arendt, would:

Reduce man as a whole, in all his activities, to the level of a conditioned and behaving animal.

Almost six decades later, have a think about this next time you’re choosing toothpaste or, more importantly perhaps, deciding who to vote for. Don’t just rely on instincts that are being shaped and nudged as you go about your day, and don’t be afraid to question whether you really are thinking for yourself.

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