Why the author of "nudge theory" is worried his theory has become too popular

On why Trump is the back-row kid, Tracey Emin’s granny slippers, and why policy “nudges” can’t be shoves.

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For social scientists, it’s a great problem to have: what happens when your theory gets too popular? Since Nudge was published in 2008, its argument – that small changes in the “choice architecture” of society can lead to significant shifts in ­behaviour – has influenced governments and private companies around the world.

The example that’s most commonly cited is of the urinals at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where painting a fly next to the drain holes reduced spillage by 80 per cent. (“It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it,” wrote the book’s authors Cass R Sunstein and Richard H Thaler.) But nudge theory has a far greater range of applications. Putting calorie counts on food wrappers promotes healthy eating, while changing organ donor registers from “opt in” to “opt out” increases take-up rates.

For Sunstein, however, it is the power of nudging that makes him uneasy. A self-described “libertarian paternalist”, he has now written a follow-up book, The Ethics of Influence, which asks how governments should use their ability to direct behaviour.

“There’s a discussion of the ethical ­issues in Nudge, but we certainly didn’t think about the issue of manipulation in any detail,” he told me on the phone from his office at Harvard University, where he is a professor. That matters because his ideas have been taken up in the UK by the Behavioural Insights Team – the “Nudge Unit”, formerly part of No 10 and now a social enterprise – and in the US, where Barack Obama has issued an executive order on using behavioural science in policymaking.

Manipulation is an issue because of the twin-track way we think, which is outlined in Nudge and by Daniel Kahneman in Thinking, Fast and Slow. We have one thought system that responds automatically and instinctively; the other is more reflective. Relying on instinct might sometimes lead us astray but it is quicker, easier and more practical than chewing over every single decision. “If we had to be active choosers about everything, we’d spend all our time working out the settings on our computer,” Sunstein says.

This strikes me as a fruitful area for politicians on the left. Establishing the “default rules” – for example, auto-enrolment in pension schemes – improves outcomes without voters feeling that they are living in a nanny state. And nudges can’t be shoves: Sunstein found that people resist being herded towards choices that conflict with their values. He sees the role of government as being like satnav. It tells you the most efficient way to your destination, but you can still choose to take the scenic route.

 

Lies and damned lies

Hillary Clinton won the first presidential debate. Anyone who tells you otherwise is lying, much as Donald Trump did, repeatedly, over the course of its 90 minutes. He told the audience that he never supported the Iraq War (he did), claimed that he never said that Clinton didn’t have a “presidential look” (he did) and explained that he continued to talk about Obama’s birth certificate after the president published it because, in effect, he wanted him to release it – which is not how linear time works. He also said that Clinton’s Middle East policy was weak, adding: “No wonder you’ve been fighting Isis your entire adult life.” Hillary Clinton was born in 1947.

The depressing reality is that none of this seems to matter. The polls have been closing for weeks and Trump is pulling ahead in several battleground states. The American photographer Chris Arnade has a useful way of looking at the Trump/Clinton contest. He calls Trump a “back-row kid” – showing off, not listening to authority, goofing around – while Clinton is a “front-row kid”, studious and swotty. The other back-row kids don’t like her because she makes them feel stupid and belittled. It’s a rerun of the appeal of George W Bush, who was mocked for his verbal gaffes (remember “misunderestimated”?) in a way that made significant numbers of Americans feel that they were being laughed at, too. Arnade views the Iraq War and the financial crisis through this lens, too. Wars are fought by the back row, urged on by the front row, while the post-2007 bailouts exposed how the front row gets treated differently when it screws up.

The front row/back row distinction also suggests why Trump’s poll numbers are so low among Hispanic and other minority voters. What is the immigrant dream of America, after all, if not that your kids will be able to sit in the front row?

 

Bedtime stories

I bunked off the Monday morning of the Labour conference to go round Tate Liverpool. The ostensible draw was an exhibition on the links between William Blake and Tracey Emin (non-existent, as far as I could see), but it was worth the trip just to see My Bed.

The past 18 years have been kind to this work, although I worry what fermentation process might have happened to the contents of the Orangina bottle. Stripped of the shock value it had in 1998, My Bed now appears more reflective – and more clever – than the initial reaction gave it credit for. The detail I couldn’t shake was the slippers, a mangy pair of grannyish things. If Emin’s aim had been simply to shock, they wouldn’t be there: they undercut the edginess of the knickers and K-Y Jelly with their defiant unsexiness. My Bed now looks, as the programme puts it, like a self-portrait of an artist from which the artist is absent.

Just as I was rethinking my prejudice against conceptual art, I wandered downstairs to the Liverpool Biennial, at which another artist has left piles of litter all over the floor. That, I can report, was a load of rubbish, and a four-year-old could have done it.

I walked off into the rain, happy again. When it comes to art, I’m a back-row kid. 

Helen Lewis is a former deputy editor of the New Statesman, who is now a staff writer on the Atlantic. Her history of feminism, Difficult Women, will be published in February 2020.

This article appears in the 29 September 2016 issue of the New Statesman, May’s new Tories