I chaired the Science and Technology Committee inquiry into Behaviour Change. Our Report, which was published today, makes some interesting findings about efforts by the Government to change the way we behave. Perhaps the most important thing we say is that to solve the really big problems that face society – like increasing levels of obesity and all the associated health problems, the struggle to meet carbon emissions targets, or antisocial behaviour and knife and gun crime – the Government will need to do more than just “nudge” people in the right direction.
The idea of governments “nudging” people to behave different has recently became very popular (particularly with David Cameron and President Obama) because of the book Nudge. “Nudges” are set up as an alternative to the use of legislation and taxation to change behaviour, and the idea is that they are less restrictive of people’s freedom. To count as a “nudge” a policy has to change the environment in which we make choices without restricting our choice.
Two good examples are changing the default on organ donation so that you have to opt out instead of opting in, or putting healthy foods first in the line at a self-service cafeteria. Do you think these sorts of things work to change the way you behave? That may be an unfair question, because what’s so interesting about “nudging” is that it taps into what our witnesses called the “automatic” system in our brains, and all too often we don’t realise we’re being nudged at all!
We saw no evidence that “nudging” people alone will change the behaviour of the population. By itself, nudging is just too simple. Equally, of course, if the Government tried to get us all to behave differently simply by making something illegal, that would also not work on its own, or even at all. Just look at prohibition in the 1920s.
Human behaviour is caused by lots of different things, including our genetics, our family and friends, and our wider physical and social environments (to name but a few!). And if the Government want to change our behaviour it’s important that they understand the complexity of human behaviour and put together policies which include a whole range of measures, some “nudges” but also some harder measures, like legislation.
But there’s an ethical side to all this too. How do you feel about the Government trying to change your behaviour? Do you think it’s more acceptable if they use “nudges” rather than legislation or taxation, even if the latter will be more effective? How about if they “nudge” you without telling you that you’re being “nudged”? We look deeply at these questions, but they are a key part of any broader public discussion of the Government’s attempts to change the public’s behaviour.
For more on the evidence taken by the Committee have a look at the video below: