Which Nudges Do People Like?

In his paper "Which Nudges Do People Like?", Cass R. Sunstein reports on some interesting data about how the United States public views the practice of nudging.

Sunstein defines a nudge as an intervention that preserves freedom of choice but which nonetheless influences a person's decision.

A reminder is a nudge; so is a warning. A GPS nudges; a default rule nudges. Disclosure of relevant information (about the risks of smoking or the costs of borrowing) counts as a nudge. Save More Tomorrow plans, encouraging employees to sign up to give some portion of their future earnings to 401(k) programs, are nudges. A recommendation is a nudge. A criminal penalty, a civil fine, and a subsidy are not nudges, because they impose significant material incentives on people’s choices.

Popular nudges include - or would include, if implemented - compulsory warnings on cigaratte packaging (74% approval); mandatory calorie labels at restaurant chains (81%); automatic enrollment into savings plans, with opt-out (71%); public education campaigns to combat childhood obesity, distracted driving, and discrimination on the basis of sexual orientation (82%, 85% and 75%, respectively); mandatory disclosure of the presence of GMOs in food (86%); and compulsory warnings about high salt content (73%).

Perhaps more surprising, majority support is also found for a state requirement that grocery stores place healthy foods in prominent, visible locations (56% approval); that a woman's last name should be automatically changed to her husband's on their marriage, subject to an opt-out (58%); and for federally required labels on products sourced from countries that harbour terrorists (54%).

Sunstein argues this pattern of responses is indicative of support for nudges that are perceived to be directed towards legitimate ends and to be in line with the interests and values of the majority.

In contrast, nudges are unpopular if they are thought to be promoting illegitimate ends (for example, a specific religious agenda); and/or if they are inconsistent with the interests and values of most people.

Examples of unpopular nudges include - or would include, if implemented - a state law assuming for the purposes of a census that people are Christian unless they indicate otherwise (21% approval); a state law stating that a man's last name should be changed to that of his wife's on their marriage, subject to an opt-out (24%); a compulsory donation, with an opt-out, to the Red Cross, linked to tax returns (27%); a federally mandated charge with each airline ticket purchase, subject to an opt-out, as an offset against carbon emissions (36%).

A number of nudges associated with government education campaigns are also rejected: for example, a campaign designed to persuade mothers to stay home to look after their children (33% approval); and a subliminal advertising campaign, to be run in movie theatres, to discourage smoking and overeating (41%).

Sunstein is well-aware, of course, that a public opinion survey cannot solve the ethical debate over nudging. Nevertheless, he argues it is clear that there is widespread support for nudging, where particular nudges do not betray illicit motivations (for example, an attempt to skew the voting process) and where they are not inconsistent with people's interests and values. Outside of those categories, he believes "Americans are likely to be favorably disposed toward nudges, certainly if they see them as a way to assist people to achieve their own ends."

Source: Sunstein, Cass R., Which Nudges Do People Like? A National Survey (June 22, 2015). Available at SSRN: http://ssrn.com/abstract=2619899 or http://dx.doi.org/10.2139/ssrn.2619899.