David Berreby

The Outsourced Mind

Is It a Nudge or a Shove? Even Experts Can Blur the Lines

It's hard to imagine other people objecting to the things we value

Posted Nov 07, 2016

 Wikimedia Commons
Source: The inventors of Daylight Saving Time. Source: Wikimedia Commons

This morning I woke up at what felt like 7:20 A.M., and enjoyed not feeling both under-slept and already late. Instead, I had the great pleasure of picking up the clock, turning 7:20 into 6:20, and going back to bed. The hour stolen from me last March was returned on Sunday night. Daylight Saving Time is over!

In obedience to a policy first devised by the regime of Kaiser Wilhelm II—as a way of cutting civilian fuel use during World War I—Americans and people in some 70 other nations are forced to change their clocks twice a year. The value of this century-old mandate is debatable (more about that below), but one aspect is not.

It is not, by any stretch, a "nudge," as defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in Nudge, their canonical work on government policies that gently help people to do the right thing. So last spring, when Daylight Savings Time was once more imposed upon us, I was surprised that Thaler tweeted this: "Daylight Saving Time is when we all agree to set our clocks ahead in order to motivate us to we get up earlier in summer. Good nudge." A number of people (including, full disclosure, yours truly) replied with some version of huh?

After all, a nudge, according to Nudge, is a policy that helps people make the decision that's best for them, in circumstances where they'd otherwise make choices they'd later regret. Arranging the cafeteria shelves to make it much easier to put fruit on your tray than a cookie, for example, is a nudge. Such policies guide people to recycle, take the stairs, save for retirement and do other beneficial things. And while some wing-nuts protest about choice being taken away, many people don't see it that way. "When people are self-aware enough to recognize that they need help, when they understand the inherent weakness of their own will, autonomy takes a back seat," Sunstein has written.

For people to agree to that, though, the government's nudge must always steer people to an outcome they'd really like to see, long-term—something that is obviously the better choice.

Equally important, nudge policies must steer gently—otherwise they're just another form of the powerful shoving the hoi-polloi. "To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid," Sunstein and Thaler wrote in Nudge. "Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not." Or, as Sunstein has put it: "A good nudge is like a GPS device: A small, low-cost intervention that tells you how to get where you want to go —and if you don't like what it says, you're free to ignore it."

Now, when the state takes a Kaiser Wilhelm approach to your sleep cycles, ordering you to alter them, this friendly standard has not been met. I can turn off a GPS device. But if I ignore the clocks on which everyone else runs, the consequences would be expensive and hard to avoid, to say nothing of extremely confusing.

Daylight Saving doesn't meet the other key requirement of a nudge, either. It does not obviously steer people toward a practice that benefits them, and that they would have chosen themselves if they had the time and focus to ponder it well. Unlike saving for retirement or taking the stairs or skipping dessert, changing the clocks appears to cause numerous measurable harms. Heart attacks increase a bit after the switch to DST, according to a number of studies. The risk of stroke rises as well, according to one described here. Car accidents increase (by about 6 percent in the six days after the "spring forward," according to this paper (pdf). And workplace injuries happen more often, and are more severe (also a pdf), the Monday after the spring time change. And the supposed energy savings, some studies find, are nonexistent.

There are some counter-arguments. Some argue, citing contradictory studies, that DST does yield energy savings. And, while traffic accidents increase right after the clock change, they are, in general, fewer in the months when people are on the earlier schedule. Then, too, some studies find children are more active during the DST months.

But for nudge theory, the problem isn't that DST is indisputably awful (though personally I, like many parents of small children, detest it). The problem is that DST isn't obviously and indisputably beneficial to a majority of people. In a 2013 poll, for instance, more people said the time change wasn't worth it than said it was. So changing the clock is not the clearly superior choice that any reasonable person would make if only she had the chance to think it through. All in all, DST is the opposite of a nudge: It's painful and expensive to avoid and it's not what everyone would choose if they had a moment to reflect.

Now, this is a good moment for the reader to wonder why I am giving Thaler a hard time about a mere tweet. That was his reasonable reaction when he graciously answered my email asking about it.  "Well, tweets are often not deeply thought out policy positions!" he wrote. All he was saying back in March is that he likes DST. He probably misses it today. "Of course you are right that not everyone can opt out of it given fixed work hours and school schedules, but as someone who does not wake up early easily, I appreciate it," he wrote. "Dreading the changeover on Sunday when everything seems so gloomy."

Chronometrical tastes differ. So what? Perhaps you think I am making a mountain out of a molehill.

On the other hand,  perhaps you can see why I was struck by how easily thoughts about nudging—an elegant and democratic theory—can be attached to a not-so democratic practice. In the casual conversation that is Twitter, even the guy who invented nudge once applied the label to a policy that is non-consensual and not obviously desirable to the people it affects. Which, I think, means the rest of us should be extremely attentive to the possibility that plans to nudge the citizenry can become too coercive, and presume that nudgers tastes are everyone's.

After all, such interpretations of nudge theory have happened. In 2013, for example, reporters and bloggers revealed that the United Kingdom's Department of Works and Pensions was pressuring job-seekers into taking a "psychological test" (in which they had to state how much they agreed or disagreed with statements like "I never go out of my way to visit museums"). I put the term "psychological test" in quotes because, as people  discovered by repeatedly taking the test online, the results for any person were always the same as any other person's.

The report always told the test-taker that she or he was fair-minded, curious about the world, interested in many things, and fond of learning and original thinking. Apparently, the idea was that people who believe these things about themselves look more diligently for work and spend less time on the dole. And they feel better about themselves.

No doubt the bureaucrats involved thought this test was a nudge. After all, it left people thinking well of themselves and inculcated a worldview associated with fewer weeks of unemployment. It took people who weren't in on their deliberations—outsiders spurred by frightened unemployed people who'd been told they had to take this bogus test to keep their benefits—to expose the policy as a crass attempt at manipulation.

The nudge approach to governance isn't going away. Indeed, it's being used in in 136 of the world’s 196 nations, according to Mark Whitehead, a geographer at Aberystwyth University in Wales, and his colleagues. And there are good reasons for this: Nudges are often cheaper and simpler than bans and mandates, and they often do often help people reach outcomes they are pleased with. Moreover, as Thaler and Sunstein have often noted, it's not as if you live in a nudge-free world until government comes along. If it's candy at eye-level instead of fruit, that's probably because someone who wants to sell candy got a chance to do a bit of commercial nudging.

This, then, is not an argument against all nudge policies. It's just a reminder that it's extremely easy to see a harmless nudge in policies that others find as intrusive as a mandatory clanging alarm.

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