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4 March 2012

Nudge or Nanny? Our confused feelings about state intervention

New research reveals contradictory impulses and different national appetites for government steering

By Bobby Duffy

Many of the biggest public policy challenges we face as societies around the world could be largely solved if people changed their behaviours and habits. If we smoked less and ate more healthily, we could do away with many of the problems associated with lifestyle illness such as heart disease and type 2 diabetes. In the US alone, the treatment of type 2 diabetes – which is almost entirely preventable – will cost $500 billion per year by 2020.

It’s no surprise then that the ideas behind behavioural economics have been of growing interest to governments and policy-makers around the world. The attraction of relatively low cost ways to get people to make better decisions about how to live their lives is obvious, particularly when government budgets are being slashed.

And it’s not just the big challenges where these approaches can help, it’s across the policy spectrum. The UK government established a Behavioural Insight Team (more commonly known as the “Nudge Unit”) shortly after the election in 2010 – and last week they published evidence of how a better understanding of citizens’ decision-making is having a measurable impact.

This includes very simple things, such as the wording used on tax demands. Their experiments show that letters saying that 90% of people in your area pay their tax on time is more likely to get people to pay up than shrill threats. These types of tweaks work with the grain of how people behave, in this case, reflecting our in-built tendency to fit in with “social norms”.

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But while there has been huge interest from politicians, there has also been a reluctance to wholeheartedly and publicly back approaches that seek to influence citizens’ choices. At a time when governments in general are at a low-point of popularity in many countries, you can understand why. Accusations of creating a “nanny state” are bad enough when you like your nanny – but when you increasingly view them as untrustworthy, ineffectual and only looking out for themselves, it is a real political risk.

Our newly released report, based on research from 24 countries, looks at whether governments are right to be cautious. This is the first international study that we’re aware of that attempts to understand the public acceptability of government intervention on different aspects of our lives – from smoking, healthy eating, saving for pensions and living sustainably.

And what strikes you first from the research findings is the higher than expected acceptance of specific interventions. Nine in ten respondents overall say that they support government providing incentives for good behaviour such as voucher schemes to encourage healthy eating or smoking cessation programmes. And, while slightly less popular, seven in ten also support government taking some elements of choice away from people, such as automatically enrolling them on pension schemes. Even outright bans of unhealthy or unsustainable products get majority support.

But the second key point that stands out is how much this varies between countries. There is no one answer to how acceptable these approaches are around the world – as you might expect, the different cultural and historical contexts within countries result in significant variation. And there is no greater outlier than the US, particularly when it comes to prohibiting activities. On each measure the US hangs far off the bottom, with for example 33% of Americans supporting a ban on unhealthy food, compared with twice that level on average across other countries, and up to 90% in countries such as China.

These patterns relate strongly to how accustomed people are to being told what to do by those in power. As we might expect, countries that have greater inequalities in power or distance between themselves and those in charge, tend to be much more accepting of governments helping us get to the “right” decisions.

But the third key point is that there is a clear internal contradiction in our views on government intervention in our lives. While there is very widespread acceptance of individual and specific actions, around half of citizens also say that generally government shouldn’t get involved in people’s choices. To take just one example, 36% of people agree with both the following statements: that “government should change the law so that everyone has to enrol in a pension” and “government should not get involved in what people choose to save for retirement”.

Many of us are conflicted: we want a nudge in the right direction, but are deeply wary of giving government the mandate to do so.

The most important conclusion is therefore that governments should get on with a creative mix of different behaviour change policies – done well, they can be very effective and most people support many of the measures. But this needs both courage and subtlety. Governments need a clear understanding of how acceptable measures will be to the public in their particular local context, but they should not constantly ask for their citizens’ permission – we don’t always know what’s good for us.

Bobby Duffy is Head of Social Research at Ipsos MORI UK