When "nudge" is just another word for "advert"

Martha Gill's Irrational Animals column.

Most people will have heard of the “nudge unit” – a crack team of behavioural economists installed in Downing Street which has the power to wire policy directly into our frontal cortices, using only cutting edge neuroscience and door-to-door leafleting.

For those that haven’t, “nudging” is an evidence-based strategy that aims to influence people’s behaviour towards certain of David Cameron’s more benign policies, such as cutting energy use and reducing obesity. It’s a canny way of motivating people without offering financial reward. To get people eating healthily, for instance, it helps to put apples, rather than crisps, on eye-level shelves in shops.

At base, however, “nudging” is just a scienced-up and buzzworded-down way of saying “advertising”. The trouble for Cameron is that, for every penny spent marketing his policies through nudge, thousands more are spent by the advertising industry to encourage us to go in what is often precisely the opposite direction. So, it’s not surprising that the effects of nudging have as yet been lukewarm.

Part of the problem is that the nudgers aren’t yet fully realised advertising men. Advertisers know the importance of targeting an audience, but nudging is very one-size-fits-all. What is perhaps more troubling for Cameron is that his core audience and his core voters are not often the same people.

A US study by Dora Costa and Matthew E Kahn of the University of California, Los Angeles showed that conservatives are far less susceptible to nudges in the direction of energy conservation than liberals. Researchers designed leaflets that let households know how much energy they were using compared to their peers (with a smiley face if they were using less and a frowny face if they were using more), and handed them out to a mix of conservative and liberal households. While this nudge usually lowered carbon consumption in liberal households, it actually had the opposite effect in conservative homes.

The researchers thought that the “boomerang” effect had been much stronger among conservative voters. If they saw they had used less energy than others (smiley face), they were likely to increase their energy consumption to catch up. This was because they had not been on board with the basic energy saving  ideology from the start; the leaflet merely nudged them towards the norm.

Cam can’t

A nudge unit is, all in all, an odd choice for Cameron. Not only are conservative voters less likely to be on board with the policies, which generally are more tailored to appeal to the community-minded, they are also more likely to act in defiance against any such “nannying” moves.

So, if they want to extend their influence, nudgers need to take more lessons from the advertising industry. This is inconvenient for them, as they like to brand themselves as a breed apart. Nudging itself, you see, is an industry – and markets itself sagely, knowing our weakness for all things science. It’s not science, though: it’s leafleting, and right now it’s leafleting all the wrong doors.

An image taken at Bristol Science Centre. Photograph: Getty Images

Martha Gill writes the weekly Irrational Animals column. You can follow her on Twitter here: @Martha_Gill.

This article first appeared in the 17 September 2012 issue of the New Statesman, Who comes next?

European People's Party via Creative Commons
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Ansbach puts Europe's bravest politician under pressure

Angela Merkel must respond to a series of tragedies and criticisms of her refugee policy. 

Angela Merkel, the Chancellor of Germany, is supposed to be on holiday. Two separate attacks have put an end to that. The first, a mass shooting in Munich, was at first widely believed to be a terrorist attack, but later turned out to be the actions of a loner obsessed with US high school shootings. The second, where a man blew himself up in the town of Ansbach, caused less physical damage - three were seriously injured, but none killed. Nevertheless, this event may prove to affect even more people's lives. Because that man had come to Germany claiming to be a Syrian refugee. 

The attack came hours after a Syrian refugee murdered a pregnant Polish woman, a co-woker in a snack bar, in Reutlingen. All eyes will now be on Merkel who, more than any other European politician, is held responsible for Syrian refugees in Europe.

In 2015, when other European states were erecting barriers to keep out the million migrants and refugees marching north, Merkel kept Germany's borders open. The country has resettled 41,899 Syrians since 2013, according to the UNHCR, of which 20,067 came on humanitarian grounds and 21,832 through private sponsorship. That is twice as much as the UK has pledged to resettle by 2020. The actual number of Syrians in Germany is far higher - 90 per cent of the 102,400 Syrians applying for EU asylum in the first quarter of 2016 were registered there. 

Merkel is the bravest of Europe's politicians. Contrary to some assertions on the right, she did not invent the refugee crisis. Five years of brutal war in Syria did that. Merkel was simply the first of the continent's most prominent leaders to stop ignoring it. If Germany had not absorbed so many refugees, they would still be in central Europe and the Balkans, and we would be seeing even more pictures of starved children in informal camps than we do today. 

Equally, the problems facing Merkel now are not hers alone. These are the problems facing all of Europe's major states, whether or not they recognise them. 

Take the failed Syrian asylum seeker of Ansbach (his application was rejected but he could not be deported back to a warzone). In Germany, his application could at least be considered, and rejected. Europe as a whole has not invested in the processing centres required to determine who is a Syrian civilian, who might be a Syrian combatant and who is simply taking advantage of the black market in Syrian passports to masquerade as a refugee. 

Secondly, there is the subject of trauma. The Munich shooter appears to have had no links to Islamic State or Syria, but his act underlines the fact you do not need a grand political narrative to inflict hurt on others. Syrians who have experienced unspeakable violence either in their homeland or en route to Europe are left psychologically damaged. That is not to suggest they will turn to violence. But it is still safer to offer such people therapy than leave them to drift around Europe, unmonitored and unsupported, as other countries seem willing to do. 

Third, there is the question of lawlessness. Syrians have been blamed for everything from the Cologne attacks in January to creeping Islamist radicalisation. But apart from the fact that these reports can turn out to be overblown (two of the 58 men arrested over Cologne were Syrians), it is unclear what the alternative would be. Policies that force Syrians underground have already greatly empowered Europe's network of human traffickers and thugs.

So far, Merkel seems to be standing her ground. Her home affairs spokesman, Stephan Mayer, told the BBC that Germany had room to improve on its asylum policy, but stressed each attack was different. 

He said: "Horrible things take place in Syria. And it is the biggest humanitarian catastrophe, so it is completely wrong to blame Angela Merkel, or her refugee policies, for these incidents." Many will do, all the same.