In the book Nudge, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler argue that it is impossible to avoid and eliminate nudges. Whenever people have a choice to be made, someone else has a hand in shaping how that choice is presented and structured. Even if a choice architect were to strive to maximize choice and decision-making autonomy in the chooser, subtle factors will influence the chooser and nudge them in particular directions. Striving to eliminate nudges is likely to lead to worse potential outcomes and choices than acknowledging nudges and trying to employ them in ways that help people make good choices.
But how does a choice architect judge when a nudge is appropriate versus when a nudge goes too far? Again, Sunstein and Thaler recommend that first a choice architect acknowledge their nudge, and then ask themselves whether they could discuss the way they use nudges in public. The authors reference an idea from John Rawls called the publicity principle. If a choice architect feels comfortable with publicly acknowledging nudges and their choice to employ a given nudge, then their nudge is probably going in an appropriate direction. If however, the discovery of their nudges would lead people to shame them or if they would be embarrassed about their actions, then they have overstepped the bounds of an acceptable nudge.
Sunstein and Thaler write, “The government should respect the people whom it governs, and if it adopts policies that it could not defend in public, it fails to manifest that respect. Instead, it treats its citizens as tools for its own manipulation.”
Nudges are effective tools because we can understand how human psychology works and we can predict situations in which people are likely to make biased judgements or judgements based on cognitive errors. Appropriate nudges seek to improve decision-making by helping people overcome these biases and errors. Manipulative nudges are those which seek to exploit such biases. Governments are expected to be transparent, and more laws exist for transparency in the public rather than the private sector, meaning that government officials must be more considerate about their explicit nudges. If oversight bodies, reporters, or the general public were to learn of a practice that made an agency or official look good while failing to actually benefit the public, then it would be clear that an abuse of power took place. Choice architects who wish to serve the public rather than manipulate it should always consider acknowledging nudges, and whether they can safely do so publicly.