Go Ahead, Be a Nudge! An Exploration of Nudge Units and Theory
February 9, 2016
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Go ahead, be a nudge! Get up slow poke by Antony Grossy at FlickrPhoto Credit: Antony Grossy

When we think of a nudge, we think of that person who prods us to stop procrastinating and do something we’re avoiding – pay a bill, clean out the garage. There are numerous theories that attempt to explain why we do, or don’t do, things we want to do and how to reverse a pattern of avoidance. New Year’s resolutions never fail to bring out that aspect of ourselves: the hope for change and the thrill of setting goal, like saving for a child’s education or scheduling that first mammogram. But what separates the doers from the non-doers? Motivation certainly plays a role, but change does not always come solely from within. External factors also play an important role, and that’s where the “Nudge Units” come in!

Rooted in the work of Nobel Prize Winning psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky, a nudge unit is a group of experts from a range of disciplines that gleans data from the field of behavioral science and uses that information to improve public policy design. In September of 2015, Obama signed an executive order giving us the Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST) – the United States’ first official nudge unit. Maya Shankar is heading up the SBST, which bases their work on the need to understand “how people engage with, participate in, and respond to policies and programs.”

The US nudge unit is modeled after Great Britain’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT), which garnered positive press for some big early wins and continues to grow in scope. Even The World Bank has its own nudge unit, GINI, for Global Insights Initiative.

Binyamin Appelbaum of The New York Times argues that nudge units grew out of a new skepticism of the assumption that humans are rational.  Behavioral scientists argue that we are not rational beings, and designing policy around that assumption leads to flawed, underused programs. Nudge units are a cost effective way to encourage people towards decisions that improve their health, financial well-being, or even find and keep a job or get more education.

An example of how human behavior affects public policy success can be as small as how forms are designed. A recent victory of the BIT was their redesign of a form for government employees that allowed them the option of contributing part of their pay check to pension funds – accounts that help people save for retirement.

In 2012, the UK decided to make the funds ‘opt-out’ instead of ‘opt-in’. That means that employees were automatically enrolled in the program, unless they opted out. Previously, the program was opt-in, which meant that employees were only enrolled once they actively chose to participate. The earlier design required an extra step on the part of the employee. The results were surprising, even to the Brits, who expected the change would increase enrollment, but not by such staggering numbers: participation rose from 49% to 86%.

Our own SBST redesigned a form for contractors with the government. Many individuals and businesses contract with the government, and the government relies on self-reporting to know how much taxes are due. Typically, self-reporting documents require a signature at the end, verifying that whoever filled it out was truthful and accurate. By simply requiring a signature at the beginning of the document, the government gathered an additional 1.59 million dollars in owed taxes and fees. The early signature prompted people to be more vigilant in their reporting, resulting in reduced errors. (A more cynical point of view would be that people were simply more honest!)

One could argue that nudge units assume the worst about people: that we tend to be lazy, tell the truth only when pushed, that we prioritize short-term gains instead of long-term ones. But does that mean governments should meddle?

Tamsin Rutter in The Guardian points out of The BIT, “it influences the public without them knowing it and is not subject to the Freedom of Information Act.” Maya Shankar says that it’s not about meddling, it’s about removing barriers to services needed by the American people.

So far, no one is nudging the nudgers. Some social scientists fear that the interests of lobbyists or corporate entities could unduly influence nudge units, pushing the public towards decisions that serve private interests. One could argue we’re already being subjected to this kind of influence, at least from a commercial stand-point. For example, websites remember our preferences and pop-up-ads are customized according to our browsing history, nudging us towards future purchases.

Scientific data about human behavior is not exactly exclusive – anyone with interest and motivation can keep up with recent publications. We’d be naive to assume that major corporations don’t already try to leverage our own nature to better serve their private interests. It’s easy to say that a nudge unit working on behalf of a democratic nation implies a kind of untouchable social merit. Would I feel that way about nudge units if I lived in a country that didn’t guarantee what we consider to be basic rights, like freedom of speech? Or the rights of women to vote? I doubt it. Nudge units, if they act without oversight, will always be vulnerable to manipulation.

Nudge Units help government understand the realities of how we function in the real world. Obama’s new Social and Behavioral Science Team will likely lead to greater efficiency in policy implementation, which means greater program participation at the individual level. We should expect to see more countries forming their own teams of experts. The principles of nudge units are almost certainly applicable to smaller-scale entities, like individual states and non-profit organizations. The integrity of these teams will always be subject to derailment. After all, nudge units are made up of human beings, too – flawed, though well-meaning, we may be.

About this Contributor: Cassandra Powers received her Master’s in Nursing from The University of Southern Maine and her undergraduate degree from Brown University. She is certified as a Family Psychiatric Mental Health Nurse Practitioner and works in community mental health in Portland, Maine. She enjoys working with clients from a holistic perspective, helping others gain insight into the connection between physical and mental health. Cassandra was the editor of Yoga Wisdom and also writes about mental health issues; an article she co-authored, “The Will to Thrive”, was published in Issues in Mental Health Nursing. She enjoys living in Portland and its many opportunities to spend time outside.


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