A nudge in the wrong direction?

Guest Contributor

Baroness Neuberger - photo: Derek Tamea

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:

12 comments for “A nudge in the wrong direction?

  1. 19/07/2011 at 11:35 am

    It’s a curious balance that needs to be struck.

    I think most people would have an instinctive discomfort with the idea of a government seeking to nudge us in one direction or another, but then again, while people behave in a manner that implies the government will pick up the pieces when they “misbehave”, we then think it is acceptable for the government to nudge us to a lifestyle that is cheaper for the taxpayer.

    For example, some of the teenagers who binge drink, or people who overindulge in the calories might expect the NHS to clean up the mess they cause.

    In such a situation where people are expecting the taxpayer to clean up their mess, it might not sound unreasonable to nudge these people to a cheaper (for the taxpayer) lifestyle. However, if people are not faced with the consequences of their actions – will nudging have any effect?

    Nudging works well with people who are already predisposed to behave in the nudged manner, but it can only affect the refuseniks by use of education and potentially, coercion.

    After all, if a doctor can wave a magic scalpel and fix a problem, why go down the harder route of self-denial that would prevent the problem in the first place?

    I am not sure if nudging will work in that situation, and maybe we need to rethink whether the State should be so willing to pick up the pieces for lifestyle based problem unless matched by mandatory lifestyle changes, supported by the realisation that there is a limit to the taxpayers willingness to clean up the mess.

  2. MilesJSD
    19/07/2011 at 12:05 pm

    I wonder if the evidently huge gap left by the United Nations when it decided to not have “Individual Human Development” and a genericly-workable “Index” thereto, but only Aggregate Human Development and a “dicey-looking” Longevity x Knowledge X Wealth HDI thereto, is being worked upon in this matter of (“our” &-vel-versus “their”) Human-Behaviour ?

    (I now need to follow all your noble lady’s references – for which up-front now a resonant “thank you” is surely due).

    PS I was unaware there are Lords (and Ladies) who may only appear (in the House of Lords or in The Lords of the Blog, or both) as “guests” … ?

    • Hansard Society
      Beccy Allen
      19/07/2011 at 12:12 pm

      milesjsd I’m not aware that there can be guest lords in the House of Lords…only on this blog I think!

  3. Dave H
    19/07/2011 at 12:13 pm

    I don’t claim to speak for everyone, but I suspect many will agree with me when I say that I tend to distrust the government’s motives in many of these things. As such, if I perceive an attempt to nudge without a good explanation of why, it’s likely to have the opposite effect and I’ll actively resist.

    This especially applies to green initiativse, several of which turn out to be more for the benefit of vested interests than the rest of us who end up footing the bill, although some are obviously based on political dogma and are always worthy of distrust and challenge. I think we’re more suspicious of anything that has its roots in the EU, because many of us distrust the undemocratic way in which we get stuck with the results.

    As for making things illegal, there are plenty who are prepared to resist by sitting just on the legal side of the boundary, consuming massive amounts of government resources with their protests, plus the hardy souls who are prepared to cross the line and just refuse to comply. Poll tax was a good example of this.

    “I’m from the government and I’m here to help” are words to strike fear into the heart of even the bravest.

    • MilesJSD
      20/07/2011 at 12:38 am

      In a very real sense, it is the Earth’s Lifesupports that are “footing the bill”;

      I see no human Civilisation yet willing and able to live within Its means;

      and the bitter ironic “Cross” of any democracy is that The People are to Blame, for it is They who employ their Governmental-workers (and “shirkers”)!


  4. maude elwes
    19/07/2011 at 2:38 pm

    It is outrageous that the state would think it has any right at all to nudge us one way or the other. And who will they be paying for the privilege of doing the nudging? Who is going to be making money out of this?

    What you need to nudge is the suppliers of food and goods that lie about the content of their products and as a result the population is growing fat from chemicals and or additives which you simply refuse to address, other than to say there is no evidence.

    There is more evidence than not, if you really want to tackle health issues that’s the place to start.

    All matters of societies ills are as a direct result of government interference in society. Every issue is brought into a ridiculous field of vision, and then denied after the effects are found to be devastating. Remember BSE.


    What you are collectively doing is causing our lives damage and it’s time you faced the truth and did something to put it right.

    Food is polluted and should carry a health warning. But, you deny us the right to know what we are eating because you were forced into doing so by the contracts of the sellers of the products moved to Europe from the USA.




    Cloned meat. We are eating and have been for some time, without it being revealed to us.



    The disgusting truth is, the EU, with the sanction of our own ‘Baroness Ashton’ has agreed to sell cloned food from the US to our population without labelling or informing the us of a possible threat to our welfare on consumption.

    The reason they don’t want it labelled is because they know they will have a hard time moving it from store to plate. If they believed it would enhance the product in the mind of the consumer they would cover it with a large notice telling us how wonderful it is for our health. This they cannot do as they will be sued for false advertisement.


    Schools and the trouble with them?

    Why has the UK government bought into the failed school system of the USA.

    You have known for years the American school system has been a violent place where they have gun toting security guards on campus from the young age of 10. Yes government has decided to follow that foolish and reckless money making business. Children in the US get murdered on a regular basis within the school system. Inner city schools are a disgrace for any civilised nation, yet, you decided you wanted this great new idea for us. Why? What is in it for you? What is in it for us?


    In America business has colluded in not taking on an employee unless he/she has a college degree. Therefore, waiters have college degrees. Hair dressers and those who have absolutely no need for an academic certificate are kept out of work in order to keep the scam of payment for education going.

    And what have you all decided was a good idea for this country? The great American system of huge fees to be able to speak and read? And at the same time you take our tax payers money to provide schooling free for those abroad. Odd isn’t it?

    Again: The new and modern UK?

    And of course, the elephant in the room we are all supposed to pretend doesn’t exist. immigration and the toll on our services including education.



  5. Twm O'r Nant
    19/07/2011 at 6:16 pm

    In an urban society this kind of nudging may only serve to curtail our civil liberties even further than they are already.

    However my Kentucky brother’s personal charitable donations in Uganda present me with a case in point of nudging in a rural and underdeveloped community.

    Working water wells
    are crucial, which he has provided personally to somebody from Ug. who asked him nicely on the internet, but dry composting human fecal matter, and urine separation, is a nudge that far too few rural African communities are prepared to make.

    As one Zimbabwean district chief has remarked

    “We find that eradicating the smell is a much pleasanter way of doing things. It is a way of thinking which we prefer.”

    The whole district is dry composted, and the chief’s remark seems to be the most enormous understateement that I have heard in a long time.

    The pheremone attraction of fermnting compost to four species of fatal disease inducing mosquitoes and the fatal sleeping sickness of the Tsetse fly, is huge.

    Yet in Ug. there is little success in introducing such schemes simply because it has never been done that way.

    Clean water was introduced in Obote’s time, and fell in to abeyance during Amin’s reign of terror and nobosy had been bothering to
    maintain the engineered water wells, because nobody knew how, until now.

    With 1/4=1/2 million people from Somalia taking refuge nearby, eastern Uganda and Kampala is going to need plenty more nudging in the near future.

    Nudging in the UK is nearly always about greater discipline required by excessively heavy urban populations, a lot of it requiring more nudging to deal with the effects of the nudging!

    More crime is generally caused by “nudges” for more policing, by people with far too little to do except complain about criminal, figments of their imagination from Chicago or NY crime detective movies on their goggle boxes.

    More cannibalism by more budging for things to be done about non enthusiasm for organ donation. How generous!!! ?????

    • maude elwes
      20/07/2011 at 2:36 pm

      I find it the oddest of all situations when those who wish to make life more comfortable for other parts of the planet, other than their own first, they play the, I’m so good game, I have a halo and you are other. It seems the lack of facilities for their own people is secondary to those elsewhere. Now why is that?

      Even when those in these places elsewhere have leaders who can afford to buy private jets and live so high on the hog you would have to be a billionaire to afford it, and all out of our aid money, you turn a blind eye to the matter.

      When I see pictures and proof that the despotic leaders of war torn, undernourished nations are also living in tents, without food and with the stench of s–t up their nose, then and only then, will I feel we should be funding their devastated society.

      Additionally, any aid sent by Western governments should be supervised and the use of ‘only’ made available for projects that can move the capable men of those countries into supporting their own people and liberate them from squalor as they should.

      People who pretend those in war torn and stricken areas are incapable of doing what is so far accomplished in the Western world, are insulting the people they tell us they want to assist.

      People from all over the world come to the West to take degrees. Even those from the most backward villages you could encounter. They are just as bright and inventive as we are. Therefore, unless you supervise and manage the aid in a way that only funds productivity as well as enterprise, then you are wasting time and the hard earned money of the tax payer you are taking it from..

      Funny how you can see that here in Europe and the UK with welfare recipients who are condemned as the cause of our deficit, but, refuse to look at this in the part of the planet that for years has been given trillions in aid and find themselves still mired in the same devastation they always have been.

      Don’t you somehow feel there may be a connection there? Or, does that make you too uncomfortable to think about? Could it be in the interests of those receiving aid to keep their people in need? As to end the pictures of inhumanity that stir us to put our hand in our pocket is too useful to be rid of? What a complete idiocy these so called ‘do gooders’ find to cling to in order to resolve their ludicrous guilt complex.

      And finally, what on earth does charity abroad have to do with running a modern society efficiently and with integrity? Does anyone know?

      Usually, if you do research, you find charities seeking endless donations need that money to fund the grotesque salaries of those at the top of their organisations. And presently they are feeling the pinch.

      Always, always, follow the money.

      • maude elwes
        22/07/2011 at 1:14 pm

        To continue from my post above on the matter of misplaced aid. A very informed individual, who spends a great deal of time fighting for sense in the distribution of suitable aid assistance, points out, one of the main needs for people who live nomadic lifestyles in Africa is to protect their livestock. Simple enough request.

        Oh, no, that’s not the way the providers want to play it. They want to pass on assistance even though ‘The Horn of Africa’ survives another way. No, they decided that these people must remain on food aid, which is grain and they are not a nation who use grain for their survival. Some remain on this aid for an eternity. Years and years unable to stand on their own feet. What they need is assurance that their livestock is supported and that once again they can live as they choose to, not lie in wait for the great white leaders to torment them with the philosophy of the West. And, of course, stuck in their own philosophy of ‘give me money for what I have here as charity, it’s the left overs I can’t sell elsewhere and the aid funds will see to it I can realise my full capacity after all.’

        This attitude inhibits self management. It makes children of those who wish to fend for themselves and actively destroys their sense of self esteem.

  6. MilesJSD
    20/07/2011 at 1:49 am

    “Conduct” is wholly within the individual’s control;
    whereas “Behaviour” includes many influences and ‘components’ that are not within the individual’s control; e.g. indoctrinations of the mind, and biochemical compositions of foods, drinks and medications – that “change” hormones, lipids, and so on and so forth.

    Similarly there are other “two-edged swords” that can cut helpfully but as easily harmfully; e.g. “intervention” and let me instantiate from a common case frequently arising in the daily work of the Police and the NHS, namely “bizarre behaviour”:

    Person A had received a ‘nudge’ to buy a certain self-help book and to learn from it both how to improve his/her Health and how to build a more Sustainworthy or Affordable Lifestyle;
    and had taken to the know-how imparted by that book, including responsible commitment to its advice to be implementing its lessons every day, including whilst waiting for a bus, whilst travelling on the bus, or whilst waiting in a cafe for the waitress to bring a meal.
    One such book is called “The New Rules of Posture” author Mary Bond (and an excellently-guiding, leaderful, dynamic, and ‘safe’ self-rescue and self-improvement text it contains),

    so our Person A began to do slow little ‘press-ups’ against a lampost at the bus-stop by varying the height of his(her) hands up and down the post, and also to standing backwards on the edge of the curb so that s/he could flex the bones in his (her) feet which s/he had just learned total 25% of the total number of bones in the human body and need to be both brought back into flexibility and regularly exercised.

    Unfortunately, two keen Police-persons caught a glimpse of this ‘public behaviour’ and having a ‘quota’ to be filled made a snap judgement of “posturing” and “bizarre-behaviour”, “dangerous conduct in a public place”, and safely conducted him (her) in their police-car to the nearest psychiatrist who promptly “sectioned” Person A, namely into the safe supportive “intervention” of a locked-psychiatric clinic;

    wherein the Person became nervous and anxious at the strange surroundings and (to him/her “gobbledeegook” “professional” examinations, odd other ‘behaviours’, and coerced medications, and so was even further judged to be “a definite psychiatric case”.
    Had Person A only had a close-companion all the time, a Person B to be “watching their back”, such “intervention” disasters would be far less likely to conducted; and more vitally had Person A only been issued with a “prescription card & authorisation” the harm would have been cut short.
    Another way of ensuring right-use of the ‘nudge’ or of the ‘welfare-allowance’ would surely be to issue it in the form of a dated series of tokens or vouchers that can only be exchanged for a specific service such as a “balanced meal”, “one hour of Shiatsu education by a registered practitioner”.

    After all, the prepaid-out-of-our-taxes Concession Bus Card works very well (despite the political-lie some Councils print on the tickets, that they are “Free Travel”; and which results in not only a workforce of disgruntled Drivers but a much wider Disgruntled General Public too).

  7. Twm O'r Nant
    20/07/2011 at 6:54 pm

    The Baroness’ “nudge” is a good one, especially to explain what quite a bit of legislation does do.

    A certain number of acts as we may have discussed on this blog before, only become acts
    to set the seal on parliamentary discussion and have very little effect on anybody except to “nudge” them/us in to doing something but not to co-erce or force.

    My comment that such nudging in an urban society, may entail a constant erosion of civil liberties, stands.

    The noble baroness, a rabbi, will certainly agree that “Faith,hope,and charity” are the highest of the virtues, and that Charity itself the highest of these.

    It is not for nothing that various denominations and faiths say so.

    How you interpret the word “charity” is entirely for your own conscience.
    I am certainly aware of a complete lack of it, from time to time.

    Nudging people to be charitable is one thing.
    Nudging people to change their “way of thinking” ,to eliminate disease, is surely quite another?

  8. Twm O'r Nant
    21/07/2011 at 5:27 pm


    In some ways the report is laughable if it were not so serious.

    If everyone were an anti-globalist, anti-capitalist, anti-consumerist, horticulturist like me, we would not need to build half a million new homes, for the ten million new arrivals in the UK in the last 10 years.

    Easy Peasy? Yeah!

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