Why the state should butt out of our personal lives

It is a sign of the times that the only debate we seem to have about nudging is ‘does it work?’ rather than ‘what gives them the right?’.

Rob Lyons

Topics Politics

This week, the House of Lords Science and Technology Select Committee published a report into behaviour change. It provides revealing insights into the limitations of the fashionable idea that we can be ‘nudged’ into changing our ways on a range of problems, from obesity to climate change. What the report doesn’t do, however, is challenge the idea that our behaviour needs to be changed in the first place, and that it is the role of government to do it.

The committee that prepared the report was chaired by Baroness Julia Neuberger and included such luminaries as former UK chief scientific adviser, Lord Robert May, and the first chairman of the Food Standards Agency, Lord John Krebs. In the course of their enquiry, they questioned a wide variety of academics, politicians, business leaders and representatives of NGOs. Their report thus provides an unusually wide survey of opinion from the movers and shakers of modern British society.

The thinking behind the enquiry is laid out in the opening paragraph. ‘Many of the goals to which governments aspire – such as bringing down levels of crime, reducing unemployment, increasing savings and meeting targets for carbon emissions – can be achieved only if people change their behaviour.’ This single sentence reveals how the politics of behaviour has become so central to political thought today. Clearly, crime is a form of behaviour, so no surprises there, though the causes of crime surely run much wider than individual choices. Unemployment has usually been seen in the past as an economic problem, not one of individual behaviour. Carbon emissions could more easily be reduced by major infrastructural investment rather than by badgering people to fiddle with their thermostats or to use the bus sometimes instead of the car. So why the obsession with personal behaviour?

The logic of this outlook, as the report says, is that ‘understanding how to change the behaviour of populations should be a concern for any government if it is to be successful’. Of course, governments have long had mechanisms to try to alter behaviour. The most obvious one is to use the criminal law to make something either illegal (like smoking in pubs) or compulsory (like wearing a seatbelt in cars). Slightly less draconian – but manipulative nonetheless – is the authorities’ attempts to influence behaviour in economic ways, by providing incentives (for example, generous subsidies to the middle classes to install solar panels and wind turbines) or disincentives (like setting a minimum price per unit of alcohol). If all else fails, the government can just spend hundreds of millions of pounds nagging us to lose weight, get fit, stop smoking or use a condom.

One problem with these kinds of mechanisms is that they look a bit authoritarian, or at the very least hectoring. It’s really rather obvious that the government is demanding that you behave in a different manner. New Labour clearly had absolutely no problem with stating this fairly openly, which is why Tony Blair and Gordon Brown famously oversaw the creation of over 3,000 new criminal offences, congestion charging in London, on-the-spot fines for not recycling, and so on.

The Conservatives and Liberal Democrats, on the other hand, like to kid themselves that they are lovers of liberty – yet the truth is that they want to meddle in our lives just as much as New Labour did. So they put forward the idea of ‘non-regulatory and non-fiscal measures with relation to the individual’ that alter our ‘choice architecture’. Essentially, when we’re not really thinking about our behaviour or don’t really care very much what we do or how we do it in a particular situation, we can be subtly directed towards doing the right thing.

To use the definition provided by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in what the Lords report calls ‘the currently influential book, Nudge’, a nudge 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. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.’

There are situations in which such nudging is fairly benign. Laying out a sports stadium in such a manner that we naturally tend to walk in a certain direction, helping to reduce logjams and congestion, could be one. The most talked about one from Thaler and Sunstein’s book is giving men something to aim at when they urinate, the result being that more of the urine goes in the bowl and less on the floor. Or a nudge could simply be a case of making it as easy as possible for me to do the good thing I wanted to do anyway, like including a freepost envelope with a request for a donation or putting a tickbox on a driver’s licence form to agree to organ donation.

But these are pretty banal issues. Not pissing on the floor is hardly a massive societal concern. Solving unemployment or reducing obesity, however, are a different matter entirely. And that is where the Lords report is rather damning, because the other problem with this kind of behaviour change is that it doesn’t work for any issue where we stop and think about what we want to do. The committee notes that in the evidence it heard ‘although much was understood about human behaviour from basic research, there was relatively little evidence about how this understanding could be applied in practice to change the behaviour of populations’. It adds: ‘Our central finding is that non-regulatory measures used in isolation, including “nudges”, are less likely to be effective. Effective policies often use a range of interventions.’

It’s not just nudging that the committee is dismissive of. Lecturing people about their habits, in isolation, is also ineffective, it says. In fact, a major theme of the report is just how little hard evidence there is that many lifestyle interventions, short of simply forcing people not to do something, really work in changing the behaviour of populations. Even then, there’s another leap to be made from changing behaviour to having the ultimate desired effect, like improving health or reducing crime. So, for example, smoking has been very effectively banned in workplaces in the UK. In the past four years, I’ve barely seen anyone light up in a pub in England. But has this led to a reduction in the rates of smoking-related deaths? Despite various dubious attempts to prove otherwise, the answer is almost certainly ‘no’.

But debating the effectiveness of such measures is really beside the point. What has received far too little discussion is whether it is morally and politically acceptable to have our choices manipulated on the basis that Government Knows Best. The report only briefly touches on this, acknowledging that ‘in some circumstances, changing behaviour will be considered controversial’, and adding later: ‘As a general point, we accept that regulatory interventions which restrict choice may be judged more acceptable if there is good evidence that they will be effective in tackling an urgent issue which is having significant detrimental effects on the population.’

That means that the authorities can decide what is good for us. As long as the government determines that an issue is urgent and having a detrimental effect, and that a particular intervention is effective to stop it – and frankly the evidence can always be spun to prove this beneficial effect – then the committee can see no good reason to oppose it. The individual’s choice to engage in that activity – like eating fatty food, smoking, drinking or refusing to recycle – is simply disregarded. The language of nudge seems a neat way to implement such behaviour change.

It is a testament to the low horizons of modern politics that the hottest idea around is changing our behaviour. It is alarming to note that the only discussion considered worth having is not about our rights or autonomy but about how successfully we can be manipulated.

Rob Lyons is deputy editor of spiked. His book, Panic on a Plate: How Society Developed an Eating Disorder, will be published in October. (Order this book from Amazon (UK). Read his blog here.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.

Topics Politics


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