What’s wrong if the public authorities were to use some mild, non-offensive strategy to make people more compliant to a course of action that will finally benefit the whole nation?

It is common experience that supermarkets, for example, will tempt you with the aroma of fresh, hot bread to entice you inside their den; or jazzy shops will spray melon fragrance in the air to attract male clients. It seems that men love it.

But to most of us laymen ‘nudging’ might just be Greek. The Oxford dictionary defines ‘to nudge’ as ‘to give a gentle prod to someone else with the elbow, give gentle encouragement.’ But now we have its administrative, figurative equivalent. What is it all about?

Essentially, to nudge is to introduce in an administrative plan a special, innocently devious rider so as to render the primary intention of the administrator more effective and attractive. And this idea has taken root so much in our everyday life that the magazine New Scientist (NS) could not refrain from writing about it.

Human Irrationality

We are advised by experts that we must stop drinking, smoking and are warned about the danger of fast food. Yet more and more outlets catering to such habits keep opening up, with more people dining out and enjoying their fried chicken, burger and soft drink, while the battle against alcohol consumption and smoking is far from being won. But concerned authorities know that there is a heavy price to pay for that non-compliance. Come Divali: what beautiful colourful sweets we have! Tons of them of all shapes and hue. The oily cakes are wonderful to the eyes and taste buds. All will be consumed in no time, specially by Mauritians of Indian origin, the very community that has a bad gene for diabetes mellitus. We are being warned of the danger of sugar (‘Sugar is a toxin’). Yet we go on pleasing ourselves and others and celebrating year after year. But we know in our heart of hearts that we should not be indulging so much.

Why do we so frequently suspend our faculty of reason? Is it a common human weakness? Social scientists have been thinking about how to modify human behaviour so as to make man respond more positively for his own benefit. That’s what nudging is all about. In the article in NS, the very first example quoted may draw a smile from us. In 1999 in Amsterdam, at Schiphol airport, the administrators used to spend a lot in their attempt to keep the male toilets clean, due to that clientele’s custom to pee outside the urinal vase.

Someone came up with the idea to etch a black fly in each vase. Surprise! Sure enough the men stopped peeing outside, because they targeted the fly instead! It is as if some social scientists and psychologists have stumbled on a solution for some ’small’ problems, and the result is a 70% reduction in expenditure! And that fly story kick- started many experts around the world to think differently.

The book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ by social scientists Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein became such a bestseller that American President Barack Obama recruited Sunstein at the White House so that his ideas could be implemented! That’s how every American applying for a driving license would be enrolled automatically as an organ donor, of course with the knowledge of the applier. And if he refuses then he has just to ‘opt out’. It seems that people will find it harder to ‘opt out’ than being ‘opt in’ automatically at the site of license application. Somehow or other it has to do with our ‘loss averse’ inclination; we always express more sadness for an object we have lost than the pleasure felt when we first got it.

In the 1980s social scientists assumed that we are very rational in our buying choices for cars, house or furniture, etc. That’s how a ’Rational Choice Theory’ came to be, and it reaped many a Nobel Prize. But soon it was realized that it was a flawed theory, because most of the time we do rely on our biases and emotions to make a final decision.

Finally it was discovered that the only common factor in making our choices is the ‘predictability of our biases.’ It is this predictability that is being targeted by some administrative authorities to make changes for the better. For those who are not paying their taxes regularly, or not saving electrical power efficiently, write to them and tell them how their neighbours are doing that. As they do not want to be worst off than the neighbours, they’ll comply with regulations almost immediately. If you are a candidate for an election, ‘send voters a simple fact sheet about voter turnout in their city and neighbourhood. This exerts social pressure on people to get out and vote’. Ask them whether they’ll take the bus/cycle or go by car to vote? This will elicit a ’plan-making effect’: you have drawn in advance a mental plan about their trip, opened up a psychological cue for them to capitalize on, and most probably they’ll go out to vote.

In the USA, it seems that a fraction of a person’s monthly pay goes automatically to a fund for old age pension; he can ‘opt out’ if he wants. But the end result is that most people do not. Instead, what would it be if employees were asked to write a letter as to whether they agree for such a deduction? By now we can guess the answer. Could we in Mauritius try to apply the same procedure? At least the Ministry of Social Security would find it easier to cater for the pension of retired senior citizens.

Even Prime Minister David Cameron of the UK has taken an interest in nudging. A new department to design nudges, known as the ‘Nudge Unit’ has been set up.

Could we Mauritians have been nudged years ago when the TV license fee of Rs 100 was included in our electricity bill automatically? How many people wrote to protest, to ‘opt out’? May be a handful. Is it possible that our government had been practising ‘nudging’ without knowing it, or knew about it already?

Blood donation would be an area where nudging could help. Now and then we hear about the Blood Bank requesting the population to donate blood for the needy patients, especially when there is a shortage. Yet we would have assumed that in our highly educated country there should not have been any call for such help; after all, this blood may help save anyone of us or our close relatives at one time or other. But the truth is different. We won’t go out of our way to do a common good, perhaps thinking that this blood will go to ‘others’; in general, for our kith and kin we would rush to donate, but for the common good – no way.

So is there a way to nudge people to come forward to give their blood? Could administrators come up with the plan that health facilities will be free for everyone provided we donate two pints of our blood in, say, over a 5-year period? Of course you have the freedom to opt out, to write a letter to the authorities concerned, saying that you do not agree, but then you would not get free health service. But this plan would look more like a blackmail – the word ‘donate freely’ is anathema to nudging; people would rise to protest vehemently against this project. They would prefer to bleed to death for the sake of freedom! Quite irrational.


But many of us would be worried to know that we are being ‘nudged’, that choices are being made for us without our consent, even when such a strategy will benefit us. Could it be a smokescreen using a coercive strategy to make us more docile? Some psychologists are saying that, in the long term, it could ‘infantilize’ us.

Some may ask: why must we be dictated by some other person? Why must the choice be made for us? Of course, the reply to these queries is also well taken: you think that when you decide to buy a blue Toyota car, for instance, it is just your choice. But didn’t your spouse or children influence your choice of colour? Did your friends convince you that that make and model is the best car available? Or were you taken in by some tricky, flashy ads? So your ‘final choice’ has been nudged somewhere and somehow by some external influence. Hence the thinking: what’s wrong if the public authorities were to use some mild, non-offensive strategy to make people more compliant to a course of action that will finally benefit the whole nation?

Basis For Nudging

Scientists are taking the cue, trying to understand why human beings revert back to emotional, irrational decisions when they should rather be rational for their own good. The key word they would use is ‘cognitive biases.’ They want to understand about human ‘foolish’ impulses: what’s the basis for our irrational choices, why do we go on resisting doing good to ourselves, what’s the psychological factor contributing to this contradictory impulses in human beings?

The concept of ‘opting in’ automatically and ‘opting out’ is the basis of the nudging plan. a brainchild of Cass Sunstein. And nudging is here to take advantage of this irrationality and, as mentioned, ‘predictability of biases’ becomes the hub of the theory.

Opponents of the theory are not convinced: we can never know where manipulation will start; we cannot assume that the Nudge Designer’s conception of biases stands true for everyone of us, and whether the solution he would provide would benefit all of us. And there may be other factors that will play against the good intention of the designer: the long queue of driving license seekers in the USA is such that they may be already frustrated when the time comes for considering organ donation. They may be negative- minded.

However, already many countries are enthusiastic about nudging, and they are appreciating the changes accruing. Will it help to solve other major problems, like climate change? That’s another question.

* Published in print edition on 19 September 2014

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