It’s been over a decade since behavioral insights have been incorporated into policy making through so-called nudge units. Nudge proponents have suggested that by altering choice environments in order to steer the decision-making of individuals, by triggering their automatic psychological processes, we can do much to improve their wellbeing, or promote important pro-social goals. For instance, we can use subtle visual cues to make consumers eat healthier, we can use careful wording to minimize bad financial choices, or we can make sure through default effects that donated organs are never in short supply.

Riding on the success of the inventors and main proponents of nudges, legal theorist Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler (2008), nudge units started to set root in Western governments as early as 2009, when the former of the duo became administrator for the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs (OIRA) in Barack Obama’s government, as part of the government’s aim to find new ways of cutting budgetary costs. Not everyone was excited about the government’s behavioral turn – although Sunstein and Thaler aimed to appeal to both the left and the right, by inventing policy that would regulate, yet do more to “preserve liberty”, they were exonerated by neither side. Bernie Sanders thought the regulatory paradigm shift would do nothing to bring bankers to heel, while conservative conspiracy theorist Glenn Beck went as far as declaring Sunstein “the most dangerous man in America” (2013).

Not that this slowed the behavioral wave down. The next four years saw an explosion of nudge units around the world. Most notably, the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the UK produced a host of studies with important policy implications for tax abidance, electoral participation, energy consumption and sustainability. It set up branches in Australia, the US and Singapore, while Denmark, the Netherlands, Germany and the Republic of Korea founded their own nudge units. The World bank has its own nudge unit, as does the EU, a number of UN bodies and the OECD. We are now in the midst of seeing the behavioral wave becoming more regionalized and accommodated for more specific policy purposes; examples include the Western Cape government in South Africa, the New South Wales regional government in Australia, and a unit founded by the Ministry of Education in Peru (2019). In addition, the incorporation of nudge techniques is given high approval. In a study by Hagman et al. (2015), even the more controversial nudge techniques have been approved by more than half of Swedish and US respondents.

Have Western societies grown accustomed to an arguably manipulative mode of governance? Arguably so. But this matter is by no means settled. The most well-known publications in moral philosophy assessing the manipulative character of nudges have at the very least raised serious doubts that nudges are always, or even often manipulative. Martin Wilkinson has argued that for an influence to be manipulative, it must be intentional, successful, not consented to, and rely on such methods that pervert decision-making (2013). However, the intention of the nudge, says Wilkinson, is not to get a person to do something, as is the case with a typical manipulative frame, but rather to get them to do something unless they want to do otherwise. Furthermore, his argument goes, if nudges are designed in a way that truly preserves liberty, then they could be consented to. Finally, it is at least not obvious that nudges pervert choice – they may well aid individuals in doing what they set out to do themselves, but were unable to muster the requisite motivation or overcome some other psychological obstacle; acting on automatic psychological processes, which permeates all decision-making, cannot possibly be sufficient for choice perversion.

Bart Engelen and Thomas Nys have also argued that nudges rarely produce the kind of preference shift that we associate with manipulation (2017). In a cafeteria that promotes apples at the expense of twinkies, via nudges, the only victims of manipulation are those customers that had a previously set preference for twinkies, but switched their preference to apples instead. But seeing this preference switched in the case of twinkie-lovers, especially given the easy opt-out design, seems mysterious to say the least. If they are set in their preference and can easily do otherwise, why would they pick apples? This is why we should rarely expect nudges to produce a manipulative preference shift.

Of course, we could conceivably assess the manipulativeness of nudges without retrospectively looking at how they performed, e.g., whether they succeeded in producing an intended goal, or whether they were consented to by their targets. When we reflect on whether we live under manipulative governments, we might care similarly about manipulation that was successfully carried out, and manipulation that was merely attempted. We might think rampant manipulation is still undesirable despite being consented to. If we were to set aside the success and consent clauses adopted by Wilkinson and Engelen and Nys, the manipulativeness concern about nudges would certainly be more common.

But we might also respond differently to the manipulation concern now, after 13 years of living with nudges, then we did when they first appeared. After all, the more scientific insight is gained about behavioral effects, the harder it becomes for governments to avoid setting choice environments in some way, with predictable effects in mind (Blumenthal-Barby 2021). And if manipulation can sometimes hardly be avoided, then in those cases the manipulation charge against nudges seems moot. Additionally, we might be able to make nudges transparent for those who disagree with them and look to avoid their effects (see e.g., Bovens 2009 and Schmidt 2017). If this can be achieved, then transparency would act as a substitute for consent; while the manipulation charge might persist, it would be much less disconcerting. Manipulative practices in governance, if nudges are of that kind, are thus likely to stay, but it might not be the kind of manipulation that we should find particularly alarming in the future.

Viktor Ivanković

Viktor is a postdoctoral researcher at the Institute of Philosophy, Zagreb. His main research interest is on the ethics of nudging, namely, the institutional requirements for nudge permissibility. His other interests are in distributive justice and bioethics.