Tag Archives: nudge

2015 paper prizes are announced!

Last week at the conference dinner of the Policy & Politics Annual Conference, the 2015 prizes for award winning papers were announced.

The winner of the Ken Young prize for the best paper overall was awarded to Will Leggett for his 2014 article entitled ‘The politics of behavioural change: nudge, neo-liberalism and the state’, Policy & Politics, 42 (1), 3-19.

The winner of the Bleddyn Davies prize for the best early career paper was awarded to Caroline Kuzemko for her 2014 article entitled ‘Politicising UK energy: what “speaking energy security” can do’, Policy & Politics, 42 (2), 259-74.

Brief critiques of the winning articles written by Associate Editor Felicity Matthews in celebration of their contribution, follow. Continue reading 2015 paper prizes are announced!

The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state

Will LeggettWill Leggett, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, discusses his article, ‘The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’ which is free to download in January 2015.

In 2013 there was controversy when it emerged in the UK that unemployed jobseekers had unwittingly been used as guinea pigs for a government experiment. They had been told to complete an online psychometric questionnaire called ‘MyStrengths’, with the threat of benefit withdrawal if they did not comply. Having entered their answers, participants were presented with apparently personalised electronic messages of ‘positive reinforcement’ eg that their answers had demonstrated a ‘love of learning’. But it later transpired that no matter what answers were entered, everybody received exactly the same messages. The real objective had been to indiscriminately instil positive psychology among the Continue reading The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state

Policy & Politics @ Thinking Futures

As part of Thinking Futures, the Annual Festival of Social Sciences at the University of Bristol, Policy & Politics supported a session called ‘nudge and the state’. Professor Alex Marsh from the University of Bristol, and Dr Fiona Spotswood, from the University of the West of England, Bristol, debated the rights and wrongs of using nudge in public policy. Alex has posted a blog on the session, which you can read here.

Nudge has created considerable debate in both academic and policy circles. We are delighted to be able to make one of our articles on the subject free this month. In 2013 Peter John wrote on the subject in our Special Issue that year. Readers of that article might also like to see Will Legget’s piece from 2014.

Behaviour change as psychological governance – making psy-citizens?

Rhys Jones, Mark Whitehead and Jessica Pykett
Rhys Jones, Mark Whitehead and Jessica Pykett

Rhys Jones and Mark Whitehead, Aberystwyth University, and Jessica Pykett, Birmingham University discuss their article, Psychological governance and behaviour change which was published in Policy & Politics in 2013, and is available free during May 2014.

‘Behaviour Change’ has become a familiar term in UK public policy. This trend indicates the growing influence of the behavioural sciences (including behavioural economics, social psychology and, to a certain extent, neuroscience disciplines) on UK policy making communities in a range of sectors –from personal finance, through public health, to environmental communications. Our work to date has involved a policy ethnography of the emergence and rise of Behaviour Change as an agenda for governance which embeds behavioural insights into public policy design and delivery. We are now investigating the significance of the UK as a policy laboratory for these behavioural forms of governance, as the Behaviour Change agenda spreads internationally. We have identified hundreds of countries in which Behaviour Change initiatives are commonplace as well as several nations in which Behaviour Change has become a centrally-orchestrated programme for governance. Continue reading Behaviour change as psychological governance – making psy-citizens?

The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state

Will LeggettWill Leggett, School of Government and Society, University of Birmingham, discusses his article, ‘The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’.

In 2013 there was controversy when it emerged in the UK that unemployed jobseekers had unwittingly been used as guinea pigs for a government experiment. They had been told to complete an online psychometric questionnaire called ‘MyStrengths’, with the threat of benefit withdrawal if they did not comply. Having entered their answers, participants were presented with apparently personalised electronic messages of ‘positive reinforcement’ eg that their answers had demonstrated a ‘love of learning’. But it later transpired that no matter what answers were entered, everybody received exactly the same messages. The real objective had been to indiscriminately instil positive psychology among the participants, rather than to meaningfully engage with them.

What had been exposed was a textbook, covert ‘behaviour change’ intervention. From the everyday choices of individuals (what to eat, to recycle) to the activities of errant corporations, behaviour change is a contemporary political buzzword. Of course, politics has always been about trying to shape attitudes and behaviour in some form, so what makes this agenda particularly prominent now? Three related factors stand out. The first is an increasingly complex, differentiated and individualised society, which presents challenges (eg in public health, climate change) that only widespread behaviour change on the part of both individuals and institutions can address. The second factor is political and ideological context. Thirty years of neoliberalism successfully discredited faith in direct, ‘command and control’ state action. The third factor is academic and intellectual, in the form of the rapid rise of the behavioural sciences, led by behavioural economics and psychology, which themselves operate in the advancing shadow of neuroscience. In the UK, these developments came to a head in the enthusiastic take up by the Coalition Government of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s bestselling book on ‘Nudge’ economics, and the corresponding establishment of a ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ – or ‘Nudge Unit’ – in the heart of Whitehall. The Unit has a wide-ranging brief across government, and its fingerprints were unmistakably on last year’s controversial jobseeker/positive psychology experiment.

My article in Policy & Politics examines the interesting assumptions about human action that are presented by Nudge. Most notably, Nudge moves away from the discredited idea that we are fully rational, consistent calculating machines, and instead tries to capture the role of our emotions, snap decisions and fallibility in making choices in various contexts. In particular, it draws our attention to the way our behaviour can be influenced by changes to our ‘choice environment’ (eg by changing the layout of products on supermarket shelving). Nudge’s argument is that policy should go with the grain of this all too human view of humans, rather than fighting against it in the hope we will make fully rational, optimum choices. For example, our inertia makes us prone to go with default options. Rather than futilely trying to overcome human inertia per se, it can be harnessed by policymakers using the default option eg making ‘opt in’ the default with regard to organ donation.

I also explore the complex and paradoxical politics of the behaviour change agenda. Thaler and Sunstein presented their project as a new ‘libertarian paternalism’. It is paternalistic, because nudgers are attempting to promote the best interests of ‘nudgees’ (eg to lose weight). But it is also libertarian in the sense that there is no compulsion, and the individual always ultimately has the option to choose differently/opt-out if they wish. Unsurprisingly, having set itself up as a new libertarian-paternalism, criticisms of Nudging have poured in from both these of these traditions. Paternalists (typically on the statist left) see in Nudge the ideological retreat of state action and responsibility for public goods. Conversely, libertarians (from both left and right) see Nudge as a sinister state incursion into our very brains and decision-making. This ambiguity is reflected in the party political take up of Nudge. Behavioural economic ideas were first encouraged in the UK by New Labour, and might be seen as a classic instance of the ‘nanny statism’ they were often accused of. And yet the behaviour change agenda has been even more enthusiastically co-opted by David Cameron and his anti-statist inner circle.

Beyond these familiar dichotomies, more thought needs to be given to the ways that behaviour change is recasting the state-citizen relation, and what alternative forms the behaviour change state might take. A ‘Nudging state’ risks depoliticising and diminishing our faith in positive state action. In the Nudging model, the state is just another voice trying to grab consumer attention in an already crowded market: it becomes no different to the private sector marketers and advertisers who have been subtly shaping our preferences for many decades. An alternative, social democratic approach could use the behaviour change agenda to reassert the importance of an active state, but in a way that develops more empowering models of citizen engagement than traditional command-and-control approaches. The important insights of behavioural theories should be heeded, but the traditional case for state regulation, mandates and bans needs to be sustained: it is increasingly clear some behaviour change will require a ‘shove’ rather than a nudge (eg smoking in public places). Simultaneously, the case needs to be made that the state is the only institution that can protect citizens against potentially undesirable or damaging attempts to shape their behaviour. This might take the form of direct regulation (eg curbing advertising aimed at children). More creatively, it could involve raising awareness of ubiquitous attempts to shape decision-making, and equipping citizens with the psychological and deliberative toolkit to define and implement – individually and collectively – their own behaviour change agenda. This would necessarily be linked to broader questions about the good society, rather than just immediate ‘choice environments’. So what emerges is a more complex vision of the modern social democratic state, in an age where behaviour change is an integral objective. Crucially, this recognises that behaviour change is not politically neutral, as some of Nudge’s advocates like to suggest. Instead, it raises fundamental questions about the citizen’s relationship to the state and the market, about which social democrats and neoliberals will have very different things to say.

The politics of behaviour change: Nudge, neoliberalism and the state’ is part of the Policy & Politics January 14 issue (volume 42, number 1) and is available on Ingenta.

Policy & Politics: January 2014 issue

Policy and Politics coverThe January 2014 issue of Policy & Politics is now available in print and online.

In this issue our authors consider nudge, multiculturalism, ethnic residential stability, lobbying, policy translation, human rights bodies, security regulation, and procurement. We take in policy issues including water and alcohol, and include conceptual debates around neo-liberalism and legitimation. The edition has an international flavour, with perspectives taking in the UK, Turkey, Ireland, and Vietnam, as well as considering ideas around issues of policy transfer between states. We have articles that are both empirically based and more theoretical contributions.

Will Leggett’s article critiques nudge by drawing on literature including Foucault and other sociological perspectives on state-citizen relations. He suggests ‘a more explicitly political, social-democratic model of the behaviour change state’ is needed. Hannah Lewis and Gary Craig analyse the idea of multiculturalism by contrasting local initiatives and central discourses in the UK on the issue. In a related piece Katherine Farley and Tim Blackman consider ethnic residential segregation in England. They argue that, despite the political rhetoric around the ‘problem’ of segregation, there is scant evidence at neighbourhood level to support such a stance. Ben Hawkins and Chris Holden analyse the relationships between the alcohol industry and policy makers using qualitative research data. They seek to show how industry actors access and influence policy-makers. The way that ideas spread is discussed by Farhad Mukhtarov. Using the water industry, he moves on the policy transfer literature by introducing the notion of policy translation, and applies it to a case in Turkey. Sarah Spencer and Colin Harvey consider the performance of human rights and equality bodies in the UK and Ireland. By means of comparative analysis, they seek to explain the gap between expectations around and performance of these bodies. Sangeeta Khorana, William Kerr and Nishikant Mishra offer a study on Vietnam’s participation in the World Trade Organization’s Government Procurement Agreement. They suggest an inverse relationship between the costs and benefits of institutional reform to support liberalisation.

This issue is available on Ingenta. Look out for blog pieces on selected articles in the issue in the coming weeks.

David Sweeting, Associate Editor