David Cameron supports efforts to ‘nudge’ the public into behaving differently, whereas Ed Miliband believes that the ‘shove’ of policy change is necessary. But, in reality, both approaches can work effectively together
In a reprise of the wonderfully nicknamed Chocolate Orange-gate, Labour leader Ed Miliband recently ascribed the Prime Minister’s failure to rid tills of cut-price confectionary to his faith in the power of nudge.
‘You know he believes in a nudge philosophy which seems to amount to just asking people to do nice things. But that isn’t going to sort out the problem. You’ve got to change the rules,’ Miliband claimed.
But there is evidence to suggest some success in nudging the public into changing their behaviour. Earlier this year the Behavioural Insight Team at the Cabinet Office – the so-called ‘Nudge Unit’ – published its latest report on the application of behavioural economics to public policy. It found that nudging can result in a significant decrease in the public cost of fraud, error and debt, often by such simple and unobtrusive measures as making forms easier to fill in.
So what do the public want? Do they recognise that their behaviour has to change if chronic challenges such as rising health costs and pensions shortfalls are to be dealt with? And if so, are they receptive to legislation that places limits on their behaviour? Would they be happy to be nudged into making healthier and more sustainable decisions, or do they want government to keep their nose out of how they decide to live?
Ipsos Mori’s Acceptable Behaviour? report presents support for various levels of behaviour change intervention across different policy areas. One striking research finding is that, across the globe, half of the public surveyed stated that government should not get involved in their decisions about food, smoking, retirement savings and sustainable living.
When we ask about government interference in their lives, many react with instinctive discomfort. Yet when it comes to individual behaviour change policies – the merits of each one considered in turn – our survey found overall support, even for restrictive legislation.
Clearly, the public recognises the extent of these problems and the majority are willing to make certain concessions for the good of society: six out of ten Britons, for example, support a change of law that makes enrolment in a pension scheme compulsory.
It is true, however, that the public do distinguish between less intrusive nudge policies, such as incentives to quit smoking, and stronger interventions, like taxes and bans. The report finds that, with very few exceptions, support for a policy decreases as its effect on personal freedoms increases.
But rather than interpret this as a political victory for ‘Cameron the Nudger’ over ‘Miliband the Shover,’ we should perhaps view it as suggesting how the two approaches might be effectively used together.
Nudge techniques can provide an enormously important impetus towards behaviour change, helping to win hearts and minds through targeted advertising, and making change easier for people who want to alter their habits.
Yet in many cases a stronger form of intervention may be required in order to decisively treat a problem, and nudges can help make this step easier to implement.
What’s ultimately important is that policy-makers are willing to utilise both types of approach. They should choose the most effective combination of interventions for each situation, based on a close understanding of the particular problem and public context.
The 1980s campaign for car seat-belts is an exemplar of how the nudges of advertising and shoves of policy can together deliver a radical change in public behaviour.
One key message of the report is that support for government intervention is strongly linked to the role the public expect their government to play. We find much lower support for government intervention in liberal democracies than we do in countries with a top-down, authoritarian governmental structure.
In order for Western societies to remain sustainable in the twenty-first century, certain changes to public behaviour may need to be enforced. And for this to happen, the inertia against strong, legislative intervention may need to be reversed on a case-by-case basis.
This is where nudge can help: not as the final word on policy, but in helping guide us towards decisions that will give us a better chance of sustaining ourselves.
Chris Branson is a researcher at Ipsos Mori