Nudge Nudge, Nag Nag: the new politics of behaviour

Sunday 1 November, 10.45am until 12.15pm, Upper Gulbenkian Gallery Keynote Controversies

The question of whether it is legitimate for governments to coerce people for their own good has long been an important one in politics. Ever since the birth of liberal thought, some critics have worried that, freed from the constraints of authority or tradition, people will make the ‘wrong choices’. From censorship of ‘dangerous’ books and ideas to prohibition of alcohol and restrictions on smoking, there is a long tradition of authoritarian intervention to save people from themselves. Thaler and Sunstein’s influential 2008 book, Nudge, sparked an ongoing debate about a new brand of ‘libertarian paternalism’. Rather than actually coercing people, the authors argue that by giving thought to ‘choice architecture’, governments can nudge people into making better decisions for themselves, society and the environment.

From setting defaults to encourage employees to pay into pension funds, to using psychological tricks to encourage recycling, the authors suggest various ways of encouraging desired behaviour without compromising autonomy. Is it childish to object to such ‘nudges’, as long the final decision rests with us, or do they represent a patronising affront to our individual autonomy? Is this really libertarian, or just a more subtle form of the ‘nanny state’, as confident as ever that the experts knows best? Who decides what kind of behaviour is desirable or otherwise? Shouldn’t such questions be subject to open debate rather than handed over to geeky ‘choice architects’ who treat the public as lab rats? Is ‘nudging’ a means of governing without winning any arguments? Or should we be happy to go with the flow in such trivial matters?

Listen to the session audio…

Other formats are available here

Philip Collins
chair of the trustees, Demos; deputy chief leader writer, The Times; senior visiting fellow, LSE; co-author, The Liberal Republic

Dr Stuart Derbyshire
reader in psychology, University of Birmingham; associate editor, Psychosomatic Medicine and Pain

Tim Montgomerie
co-editor, ConservativeHome; co-founder,; member, advisory board, Centre for Social Justice

Peter Taylor-Gooby
professor of social policy, University of Kent, Canterbury; director, ESRC Social Contexts and Responses to Risk programme; author, Reframing Social Citizenship

Claire Fox
director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive

Produced by
Claire Fox director, Academy of Ideas; panellist, BBC Radio 4's Moral Maze; author, I Find That Offensive
Dolan Cummings associate fellow, Academy of Ideas; author, That Existential Leap: a crime story (forthcoming from Zero Books)
Recommended readings
Nudging Recycling From Less Waste to None

Across the nation, an antigarbage strategy known as “zero waste” is moving from the fringes to the mainstream, taking hold in school cafeterias, national parks, restaurants, stadiums and corporations.

Leslie Kaufman, New York Times, 19 October 2009

A nudge too far

Rewarding people for healthy living has earned results but the long-term implications are alarming.

Libby Brooks, Guardian Comment is free, 15 October 2009

So just how is Cameron going to give power to the people?

There's a paradox in aiming to improve services even as the Government does less.

Steve Richards, Independent, 9 October 2009

Cash incentive for slimmers more effective than diets, study claims

Paying people to lose weight works better than diet plans, research suggests. A scheme being trialled by the NHS that rewards slimmers with cash or shopping vouchers could be more than twice as effective, it is claimed.

David Rose, The Times, 5 October 2009

No smoking. Do not obstruct the doors. Mind the gap......Oh, do stop nagging!

Nagging Britain: When you walk out of the front door, suddenly you're surrounded by beeps and announcements telling you how you should behave.

Harry Mount, Daily Mail, 2 September 2009

Don’t bank on the City optimists being right

Forecasts and figures are a confidence trick. Bankers have a lot riding on us believing things are getting better – or worse.

Antonia Senior, The Times, 7 August 2009

Obama's Nudgers Vs. Evil Health-care Lobby

If Obama's nudgers are the 'Benevolent Nudgers', who are those 'Evil Nudgers'? The GOP? Or everyone who opposes the President? Or are both sides 'Evil Nudgers' in disguise? Yes, and here's why.

Paul B Farrell, Fox Business, 13 July 2009

Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour

To be a successful practitioner of 'nudge' it appears you might need to understand what makes deliberation work and to be an effective practitioner of 'think' you may need to understand the dynamics of 'nudge'.

Peter John, Graham Smith and Gerry Stoker, The Political Quarterly, July 2009

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness

Every day we make decisions: about the things that we buy or the meals we eat; about the investments we make or our children’s health and education; even the causes that we champion or the planet itself. Unfortunately, we often choose poorly...

Richard H Thaler & Cass R Sunstein, Penguin, 4 March 2009

‘Nudging’: the very antithesis of choice

‘Libertarian paternalism’ represents a retreat from political debate, and the rise of a base psychological agenda that wants to make us conform on green, health and lifestyle issues.

Martyn Perks, spiked, 19 December 2008

Session partners