Nudging or Wedging: Why we Don’t Do What’s “Good” for Us

Right or wrong, nobody likes to be told what to do by a moral zealot.

Interestingly, overt moral patronising and Pharisee-like impositions of righteousness tend to have the opposite effect with people reacting against such diktats, even if “everyone knows it is good for us”. You cannot force people to change their habits or their beliefs (and just the opposite is usually the norm). A good part of public policy theory was about gently changing (improving) public behaviour (sin taxes, traffic restrictions, crime protection…) while protecting civil rights and freedoms and preventing public backlash. Now the zealots seem to be using the precautionary principle as a wedge for imposing behavioural change. Reactions against such impositions are predictable.

On a superficial level, I could say my mother taught me right from wrong and I don’t need to be lectured to by the likes of you, thank you very much. Our social media silos confirm our biased perspectives in a comfortably seamless manner. We search for information we want to hear and not what someone with a moral agenda imposes on our ears. Somehow in the digital information age, freedom has morphed into a freedom from having to listen to things we don’t want to hear. I trust people like me, people who inspire me, people worthy of my attention. Not some righteous zealot (unless, on a particular issue, I am one with them against the infidels).

Gentle Nudge or Shoving it in my Face?

I will buy in and accept what you want me to do if you inspire me, attract me or offer a compelling story. I need to be empowered, trusted and made to believe I am making my own good choices. But if you are coming from outside of my narrative, if I cannot identify with you (ie, if I cannot trust you) then whatever you shove into my face will likely lead me to bite back.

Around a decade ago the risk world was attracted to a concept known as nudging – finding subtle means to gently change people’s behaviour in a positive manner. It could be seen in measures as benign as painting a fly in a urinal to optimally reduce splashback to making recycling bins larger than the general waste ones. I was first attracted to nudging through its harmless efficiency. I have always been wary about the risks of imposing behavioural change on individuals, but nudging left me the option to (believe that I) choose for myself.

Nudging was best represented by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge“. This book was recently updated in a second edition but did not make a further impact. Why not? As a risk policy tool, nudge theory has basically become dormant compared to the activist strategy of apocalyptic urgency (now for every campaign they run). This has rendered the softer choice architecture approach ineffective. If one believes humanity will go extinct from cataclysmic climate collapse in eight years then small measures to cut energy consumption won’t deliver the “objectives”.

Welcome to Gilead (where crisis, urgency and intensity matter more than the freedom to choose).

Nudging should have been used during the COVID-19 pandemic to reduce infection risks long-term. Instead draconian measures were imposed on populations petrified by stories of slow, awful, lonely deaths. But in pushing data-defying restrictions over an extended period, the public reacted against expert advice the first chance they had. While coronavirus infections are still spreading, the public (in the West) is largely no longer willing to accept lockdowns, facemasks or social distancing. If I had been gently allowed to (believe that I) make my own decisions on preventing viral infections, those facemasks would not now be at the back of the top shelf of my cupboard. I would also have more respect for my authorities and the next vaccine booster drive.

When every situation needs to be framed as a crisis (save the planet, save lives, fight the infidels, stop an explosion of cancers…), nudge theory techniques won’t deliver the desired behavioural impositions. With a manufactured crisis, activists can stop people in their tracks, lock them down and take away their goods and services. Enter the precautionary principle: not with a nudge but a wedge!

No Time to Nudge! Invoke Precaution

Can nudge theory coexist with the precautionary principle? Precaution is an all or nothing approach to restrict our activities in the face of uncertainty. If a substance, system or activity cannot be determined with certainty to be safe, then it must stop. It can be applied easily to activities or products that are deemed morally offensive like coal-based energy, plastics, synthetic chemicals, pesticides… Trying to nudge people into using fewer plastic straws would not work in a world where activists are desperate to eliminate all plastics.

Nudging is still used for reducing unhealthy preferences like alcohol, sugar, coffee, salt and tobacco where the benefits are too strongly identified to allow the righteous to intervene. Precautionistas would love to more efficiently “solve” those “problems” but politicians with a sense of self-preservation are not, to date, willing to be so suicidal. Activists have learnt that any campaign needs an apocalyptic threat (climate collapse, mass sterility, the bee Armageddon, widespread cancers…) to prioritise precaution over more gentle solutions like nudge theory. Activists need to generate some dystopian world with palpable fear, moral outrage, righteous alternatives to an identifiable source of evil… In other words, activists need to lie and distort.

Precaution is imposed in situations where trust is non-existent and social goods can easily be taken away. If we try to gently nudge someone to change their behaviour, we empower individuals and trust that most of them can make proper decisions.

Lack of Trust or Moral Outrage

Policymakers who impose the precautionary principle do not trust citizens to make reasonable decisions. Twenty years ago, an efficient chemical cleaner could simply be labelled “Handle with Care” and “Keep out of Reach of Children”, consumers were entrusted and could enjoy the product’s benefits. Now, if you cannot prove the chemical is 100% safe, then the precautionary principle is invoked and the chemical is taken off of the market (forget about the benefits).

On its own, this lack of trust is not enough for the precautionary approach to thrive. Not every bad choice is a big problem that I need to be prevented from making. But if my choices cause moral outrage (among a loud, sanctimonious minority), then I must be stopped. That herbicide sprayed near a school, that piece of plastic destined no doubt to choke the ocean, the bee that did not return to the hive, that careless person who coughed on a bus … can generate enough moral outrage to enable a risk manager to abandon the trust process and impose radical behavioural change via the precautionary principle. And who would dare challenge the righteous who are trying to save humanity, the planet, the victims…

This is where the precautionary principle is today. It is a policy tool that can be applied when a public is made adequately afraid of potential consequences and filled with moral outrage towards the perpetrators. The role of the activist is simple: it is to generate a toxic balance of fear and outrage in order to apply precaution and win in the policy arena:

  • fear of environmental-health devastation and outrage toward industry;
  • fear of pesticides and GMOs and outrage toward farmers;
  • fear of cancer and outrage toward chemicals and plastic;
  • fear of nuclear meltdowns and outrage toward capitalists and their scientific community;
  • fear of cataclysmic climate change and outrage toward the fossil-fuel-funded lobbyists…

It is interesting to note in risk cases where benefits are widely identified (coffee, mobile phones, alcohol, salt, internal combustion vehicles, tobacco, meat …), moral outrage cannot be raised to the level at which the precautionary principle would be tolerated. There is a lack of integrity and a hypocrisy in how precautionary bans are applied.

Fear and outrage are too emotion-laden to bother with less important factors … like facts and data. Faced with some imminent disaster, “better safe than sorry” carries more resonance than “calculated, correct and safer”. I have argued before that science is concerned with the difference of being right or wrong while precaution is about being safe (and if, in the end, you were not right, then being safe matters more than being wrong).

The precautionary principle defies scientific logic, is able to ignore facts, identifies uncertainty with fear, encourages a Docilian population to believe they can live risk-free, systematically removes benefits, leads to worse environmental-health consequences and, we can add now, creates a trustless environment where, given the choice, people refuse to do what is likely better for them. Precaution disempowers people, alienating them from dialogue and destroying trust relations.

Worse, precaution has created a policy arena where activists, playing the fear and outrage game, shout repeatedly at their petrified communities how “There’s no time to lose” and “We must act to stop this now!”. The only option for the policymaker then is to abandon the dialogue and trust process and impose precaution. Gently nudging to a better situation is no longer given the time of day in decision theory. The trade-off though is that most people don’t like to have decisions rammed down their throats by some righteous nanny regulator so individuals will react even against what is good for them. The preacher’s daughter syndrome.

Nudging was a clever theory … but completely impractical in precautionary Gilead.

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