Acknowledging Nudges

Acknowledging Nudges

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.

Pessoa on Politicians

Fernando Pessoa was a Portugese writer in the 1930’s. I’m not sure if he was really involved with politics at all, but in The Book of Disquiet he had a short passage that I think describes politicians well. He writes,

 

“The government of the world begins in ourselves. It is not the sincere who govern the world but neither is it the insincere. It is governed by those who manufacture in themselves a real sincerity by artificial and automatic means; that sincerity constitutes their strength and it is that which shines out over the less false sincerity of the others. A marked talent for self-deception is the statesman’s foremost quality. Only poets and philosophers have a practical vision of  the world since only to them is given the gift of having no illusions. to see clearly is to be unable to act.”

 

This post is not one to say negative things about politicians. Instead, it is a reflection on how humans behave. I want to focus in on the stories we tell ourselves and how we view reality. I think Pessoa is correct in his assessment of politicians. Sincere is defined, by a quick Google search, as “free from pretense or deceit, genuine feelings.” Politicians have many things on their mind at any given time and it is likely that they are never truly influenced by solely their own genuine feelings. At the same time, however, it is probably not fair to say that they never have true and meaningful feelings or beliefs. They likely try to hide any selfish motivations from even themselves, in an attempt to have pure motives for their decisions. But  they are not completely deceitful (in general) and insincere. They are humans, trying to do what they think is right, popular, and will bring good outcomes for society and for themselves personally. Their lives are a story, and they are constantly trying to write a good ending.

 

If you think about it, the assessment Pessoa makes of politicians is really just an assessment of humans in general. We all live like politicians, trying to craft a story that seems genuine and sincere about our lives and who we are, even if our actions, decisions, and behaviors are partially (or almost completely) self-serving. The politician is just an easy example of how humans behave in ways that appear contradictory. We should recognize that men are not angles, but we are (in most instances) not complete devils either. We have moments of genuine sincerity, but we are also capable of boundless deception. If we are careful and look at the world very clearly, we can see this play out in our politicians and in ourselves.