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Because Of The Widespread Acceptance Of Nudge Theory, New Ideas On How To Improve Society May Be Stifled

Nudge theory’s popularity may block insights into improving society

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Consider the possibility of eliminating a branch of the United States government, such as the Supreme Court. What are the many ways that a significant upheaval might alter the course of people’s lives?

Before deleting the United States Supreme Court, policymakers and experts would likely want to know those consequences before taking such drastic measures. However, according to behavioral decision–making specialist David Gal of the University of Illinois Chicago, “you can’t evaluate profound structural changes like that in an experiment” until after the trial has been completed.

The same is true for more moderately speculative but potentially far-reaching societal changes, such as increasing Social Security or granting universal maternity leave, which cannot be examined using typical trials involving control and experimental groups. Consequently, many behavioral scientists are now focusing on investigating “nudges,” which are minor interventions that act within the current policy framework. Nudges can impact human behavior, according to a study, and they can be quickly evaluated in tests before being used.

While there has been an increase in the use of nudging in recent years, there has also been a decrease in broader behavioral science research and ideas on how to build a better society, according to a commentary published on January 12 in the journal Nature Reviews Psychology by Gal and marketing specialist Derek Rucker of Northwestern University in Evanston.

As a result of publishing a book on the issue in 2008 by economist Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago and legal scholar Cass Sunstein of Harvard University, nudges gained widespread attention. Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economic Sciences for his work, and governments throughout the globe have set up nudging units to change or develop public policy as a result of his findings (SN: 10/9/17; SN: 3/18/17).

Small economic incentives to persuade individuals to receive a new vaccination are examples of nudges, as is the practice of sending text messages to remind people of an upcoming deadline. For example, researchers in New York City recently redesigned a court summons form and issued SMS reminders to encourage more individuals to attend obligatory court sessions. According to the researchers, the intervention raised court attendance by around 20 percent (SN: 10/08/20).

However, such nudges fail to address more complex societal issues, such as over-policing in low-income neighborhoods, where these summonses are most frequently-issued, according to Yale University lawyer and sociologist Issa Kohler-Hausmann in a perspective piece that was published alongside the research.

The author writes that “changing our country’s approach to criminal and welfare policy would need measures that are far more radical than cost-neutral behavioral nudges that everyone can agree on.” Gal believes that policymakers are fond of nudges. Nothing essential has to be changed, says the author.

Gal and Rucker believe that the popularity of nudges among behavioral scientists may be attributed to the scientists’ desire to replicate the accuracy of researchers in other domains. Pharmaceutical medications may be tested by medical researchers, for example, via randomized controlled trials. Researchers use that scientific gold standard to compare the results of patients who get the medications to those who receive a placebo. To do so, nudge researchers may introduce an incremental change such as a medication into the system and compare results between individuals who get the difference and those who do not.
“Experiments are important to us because they provide statistically exact estimates,” Gal explains.

However, the authors point out that nudges that are successful in academic research are often ineffective in the real world. As researchers noted in a 2020 working paper published by the National Bureau of Economic Research, one examination of 74 nudge trials involving approximately half a million participants found that nudges enhanced the intended behavior by an average of 8.7 percentage points. However, according to an examination of 243 real-world studies of nudges involving over 23 million individuals, nudges were shown to improve desired behavior by an average of just 1.4 percentage points in most cases.

Aiming for comprehensive ideas that apply beyond a particular specific context, rather than statistical accuracy, Gal would want to see behavioral scientists produce overarching theories. When a person is tried in the United States, jurors must achieve a unanimous decision to condemn them. Nonetheless, research on conformity has shown that individuals mimic other people due to social pressure (SN: 8/15/18). Gal believes that research may provide valuable insights into how human behavior interacts with established practices and raise significant concerns instead of nudges.

Is it possible that the need for unanimity prevents jurors from addressing legitimate concerns during deliberations in this case? “Even a single dissenter may have a significant impact on the argument and help to reverse the trend toward uniformity,” Gal asserts.
According to data scientist Kevin Wilson of the Policy Lab, a policy research organization at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island, there is a place for theoretical and practical behavioral scientists. The necessity for theory-thinkers, who are integrating these lessons and, as they call it, extrapolating ideas, is critical. But we also need individuals who will… put these findings into practice.”

According to Kohler-Hausmann, nudges are now monopolizing the conversation. She claims that policymakers, funding agencies, and research journal editors all favor the quantitative outcomes that nudge provides. This almost exclusive emphasis has hampered the advancement of transformative change. “Because of the high expense of a narrowly defined intervention, the investigation of more compound and sophisticated therapies is out of the question.”

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