The Stepford Nannies: How “Choice Architecture” is Building a Perfect Society by Paul Whittaker
Over the last few years a methodology of social control has emerged whose claims of effectiveness, despite being rather modest in some respects, still appear to represent a significant breakthrough in the ability of governments to make society behave in the manner in which they desire. This methodology is known as Nudge Theory and it has been embraced on both sides of the Atlantic by David Cameron and Barak Obama and the craze seems to be spreading to other European countries.
To date the overwhelming majority of Nudge Theory’s applications have been (almost smotheringly) benevolent, for example the British “Behavioural Insight Team’s” first task was to improve the uptake of loft insulation.
With the subsidies which already existed to encourage the uptake of insulation going almost completely unheeded the Nudge Unit attacked the point of inertia – subsidising the insulation companies to clear people’s lofts for them, rather than subsidising the installation of the insulation itself. As a result, uptake increased five-fold, which is good both for the individuals energy bills and for the environment.
As Nudge Theory gains confidence and finesse, however, it’s fingerprints are beginning to appear on more dystopian projects such as the mass censorship and surveillance program being brought in by Cameron under the guise of protecting the children from pornography.
To be clear Nudge Theory is not, and does not claim to be any kind of mind control ray, it cannot be modulated to affect the brain of any specific individual, instead it works powerfully across a broad swathe of society without ever having to directly affect any specific individual.
What is a Nudge?
iNudgeYou.com, one of the most candid sources on Nudge Theory offers the following two quotes as definitions of Nudge Theory.
“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid.” (Thaler & Sunstein Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth & Happiness (2008))
“Nudges are ways of influencing choice without limiting the choice set or making alternatives appreciably more costly in terms of time, trouble, social sanctions, and so forth. They are called for because of flaws in individual decision-making, and they work by making use of those flaws.” (Hausman & Welch 2010, 126)
iNudgeYou favours the latter as it does not define itself in strictly economic terms. I particularly like the last part: “by making use of those flaws.” Told you these guy’s were candid. One of the key components of Nudge Theory is the idea that people rarely change defaults, so that much of the discussion of “Choice Architecture” boils down to setting all the default options to the outcome favoured by the policy makers, hence the suggestion of opt-out organ donation and the opt-out nature of Cameron’s porn filter. The idea of inertia and acceptance of the status-quo is central to, and characteristic of, the Nudge methodology.
Another identifying characteristic is the use of social norms as a tool of persuasion, for example publishing statistics claiming that 9 out of 10 people pay their taxes on time[i] which is apparently an effective way to make a significant proportion of the remainder fill in their returns on time.
Nudge nudge, wonk wonk. Origins and central characters of Nudge Theory
The core text of Nudge Theory is the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth & Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Sunstein recalls Ted the lawyer from Scrubs and appears to revel in the epithet “humble policy wonk” (wonks being to politics as geeks are to computers) and speaks with rather endearing self-consciousness when discussing the example of the flies painted on the urinals at Schiphol Airport which reduced spillage by 80% (this experiment from 1999 predates Sunstein and Thalers formalized nudge theory). Sunstein has been a member of Obama’s inner circle since his election in 2008 when he was made Obama’s “regulatory czar” heading up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.
Sunsteins co-author Thaler is an academic economist involved in the death of the Chicago School’s rational choice model and the rise of behavioural economics, which is essentially the study of human fallibility in economic decisions, and while Nudge Theory moves out of the strictly economic sphere it is still very much the child of Behavioural Economics.
In the UK David Cameron had made Sunstein and Thaler’s book required reading for his inner circle even before the coalition came to power[ii], and it remains required reading for his front bench. In addition to having the coalition briefed in on Nudge Theory David Cameron also established the first Behavioural Insight Team whose successes have led it to the verge of being privatized (which is in itself an interesting precedent for a branch of the civil service).
The UK Behavioural Insight Team, which consists of about half a dozen people, although intimately involved in the theories ascent (and informally known as the “Nudge Unit”) they do not always limit themselves to staying within the definitions of nudges discussed above.
Obama has now also now established a Behavioural Insight Team of his own, much to the chagrin of conspiracy theorists like Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. (Hilariously Sunstein suggests in a 2008 paper on the impact which conspiracy theories are having on the American government that: “Government agents (and their allies) might enter chat rooms, online social networks, or even real-space groups and attempt to undermine percolating conspiracy theories by raising doubts about their factual premises”. You have to love that distinctly American sense of irony. It is also a testament to the man’s sense of democratic integrity that he would prefer using spies to subvert freedom of speech than have it stamped out entirely).
Oxymoronic ideology and cumbersome jargon
Apparently it took a certain amount of nudging from their publishers to persuade Sunstein & Thaler to call their book Nudge. The term which they had preferred themselves was Libertarian Paternalism, possibly the most awkward pairing of ideological components since anarcho-fascism (which never really caught on).
Another rather hefty piece of jargon essential to Nudge Theory is “choice architecture”. This terminology describes something which can exist as either an accidentally or deliberately designed aspect of any decision making process, and, despite being more than a little bit cumbersome the term certainly adds a much needed masonic zing to the conspiracies generally bland and friendly idiom. Nudge theory also defines those who are responsible for designing these decision-making processes as “choice architects”.
The nightmare scenario: Required Active Choosing
In a clip on YouTube[iii] Sunstein is asked about organ donation. Here Sunstein dissembles about how we cannot be allowed to make decisions about things like organ donation because if we had to make informed decisions (Sunstein prefers the term “Required Active Choosing” and only seems to think it is a good idea when the Choice Architect is incompetent) all day long it would be frustrating, imaging a situation in a restaurant where you are expected to select the exact ingredients in each dish rather than having a menu to choose from. Deep within the waffle soup of his answer he does embed a very hedged acknowledgement that (for the specific example cited) making informed decisions is preferable, but this acknowledgement is droned out by the rest of his reply which can only be taken as either contradictory or irrelevant to it.
The strong implication here (regardless of whether his exact wording contradicts it or not) is that all the decisions we make in a day have the same value. In Nudge Theory organ donation, national independence and joining the Euro all exist in the same class of decision-making as meat ball marinara vs steak and cheese, and since no distinction can be made between the importance of these issues the anaesthetised peons should just be shunted through the maze by the least self-interested Choice Architects available.
This paradigm is the absolute antithesis of democratic principles, the conversation is no longer even dumbed down, it is completely bypassed wherever possible. This is the nanny state (or should that be au pair state[iv]) at it’s absolute zenith, no-longer satisfied with merely caring for it’s charge it has now become psychotically fixated on molly-coddling it to the extent where it can never learn to reason or make decisions for itself.
Aside from the pervasive infantilization inherent in the paternalist side of the Nudge equation, the libertarian side is where the most toxically anti-democratic sentiments lie. Along with default-tinkering another of the identifying features of Nudge Theory is it’s aversion to legislation, indeed with legislation (as with direct financial subsidies) a Nudge ceases to be a Nudge.
Avoiding “mandation and legislation” (in the idiom of the UK Nudge Unit) may appear to be a good thing from libertarian and capitalist perspectives, but in relation to democracy the situation is rather murkier. By sidestepping the legislative process politicians are able to simultaneously avoid both the transparency of having bills drafted and read before parliament as well as avoiding the danger that the other parties, or even then own party will oppose the passage of their bill, both of which are fundamental to the function of democracy. This methodology allows very small cliques to act in ways which parliamentary democracy is specifically designed to safeguard against, for example David Cameron’s porn-filter was arranged in private meetings with the ISP’s rather than in the house of commons, and was a project that existed for the most part between himself and Claire Perry (with some input from the Daily Mail[v]) rather than either the Conservative Party or the coalition as a whole.
Who Nudges the Nudgites?
Another example of the American sense of irony at play in Nudge theory is that while it is grounded in a potent analysis of the fallibility inherent in human nature, the whole point of the exercise rests on the idea that the Choice Architects themselves are sainted beings of irrefutable benevolence, not subject to bias, self-interest, fad or delusion. If (hypothetically speaking) we did live in a world where our leaders were imperfect creatures, subject to understandable foibles, or if we happened to inhabit some kind of bizarre alternative universe where our leaders were a filthy pack of corrupt imbeciles with aspirations to happy-meal fascism then having think-tanks full of Nudge Theory acolytes at their disposal would only accelerate their rush to folly.
For example Nudge Theory has a lot to offer on the subject of the great 21st century plague of obesity (everything from smaller portion sizes to smaller spoons to eat them with. They don’t go quite as far as to suggest that fat people eat less in so many words though) Brian Wansink, Nudge Theory’s go-to guy for dietary advice, pushes the concept of “mindless eating” (the title of both his book, taglined “why we eat more than we think” and his dot-org). Wansink’s work is interesting psychologically but the relentless underlying drive is to assume that lower calorie intake is the healthy option for everyone. There are of course more people suffering from obesity than there are people with eating disorders, but one of the fundamental aspects of democracy is that it facilitates majority rule without it devolving in to mob rule, we judge our society by how it treats the least among us.[vi]
This is the paper thin membrane which separates democracy from runaway populism at the expense of the weak. I’m not trying to imply that the Nudge Theorists would go so far as to instigate outright pogroms of weight-watchers against the anorexic ghettos, however amusing an image it makes; in fact I don’t think that they have deliberately created their choice architecture in such a way as to favour those who eat too much over those in danger of malnutrition. Perhaps eating isn’t the only thing the Nudge Theorists are doing mindlessly?
This example in particular highlights the dangers of the kind of one-size-fits all thinking which the Nudgites consider themselves absolved of by virtue of the slightly implausible “Libertarian” which they have tacked on to their Paternalism.
To be clear there are ways to do these things right, a canteen at one of Google’s offices was given a Wansink inspired make over[vii], the rule which they adopted was that “bigger plates means bigger portions”, this is a great way to help people keep their consumption down without forcing an anaemic standard of malnutrition on everyone.
Nudge, Shove, Shoot
For mysterious and inexplicable reasons Nudge Theory’s methodology of subliminal social control has attracted a lot of attention from Glenn Beck and the Obama hating branch of conspiracy theorists who see a natural progression from nudging to shoving to shooting those who won’t follow the One World Government’s sinister agenda for a world with prefect loft insulation. Clearly this is an over-reaction, the very beauty of Nudge Theory lies in the fact that you never need to send in the blue hatted goons because you can safely leave the heavily armed, socially isolated wierdos like Glenn to their own devices, as long as you have enough spooks on twitter raising doubts about their factual premises, the weido’s can have the free run of Libertarian Paternalism’s soft play area.
The important thing to recognize about Nudge Theory is that it is actually a potently effective tool, and it doesn’t achieve this without having a strong credible basis. The problem is that, as with the focus group politics of the late Clinton/early Blair era[viii] it has a crack-pipe compulsion for politicians keen to see immediate short term results without any concern for the democratic implications of what they are doing.
The thing is that there are grains of truth to be panned from the dissembling weasel words of the theories proponents. As long as the idea of setting the defaults is used in a way which is transparent and encourages people to consider what settings are best for them personally it ceases to be problematic, unfortunately, by virtue of being pitched to politicians in it’s current form this technique is just used as a way of manipulating people with built in plausible deniability if anyone is ever paranoid enough of accusing you of having lied to them. As the Nudgites would frame it, people are nudged all the time by the way things exist anyway, so where’s the harm in nudging all of them in the direction which we, in our all-loving, all-knowing wisdom have decided is best for the statistical median of them?
[ii] New Scientist, 22 Jun 2013,
[iv] New Scientist (With nudges, societies may become ‘au pair’ states – like nanny states, but less bossy)
[v]While clamouring for the imposition of censorship the Daily Mail also publishes stuff like this, seamlessly blending good old fashioned 80’s style AIDS alarm with the most graphic frames they can publish from a film with a tenuous connection to the performer in question. http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2400276/HIV-infected-porn-star-Cameron-Bay-sex-actor-sex-Sydney-Leathers-Weiner-And-Me.html
[vi]KJV Matt 25:40 “And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye have done it unto one of the least of these my brethren, ye have done it unto me.”