Are the choices we make our own?

di Ilaria Miligi - 28 Febbraio 2021

  from Rome, Italy

DOI: 10.48256/TDM2012_00178

We, as social animals, are influenced by what others do, by our peers and friends’ advice and opinions. What happens if governments broadcast messages aiming to influence people on a large scale? Would you ever imagined that simply by telling people about the great amount of citizens that pay taxes on time the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team, also called ‘nudge unit’ has improved the on-time tax payments by 2.367 million since 2010 (Lourenco et al., 2016) ? And this is only one example out of thousands behavioural hints that bring citizens to make better choices. This leads us to posit many questions: ‘Is behavioural policy a good thing?’ , ‘Is nudge helpful?’, if yes ‘For whom is a good thing and who sets the parameters for such choice?’


What is nudge? 

Since the publication of the book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’ written by Richard Thaler, the behavioural economist that was awarded the Nobel prize in 2017, and Cass Sunstein, the american legal scholar that has worked in the government, now professor at Harvard Law School, the concepts of ‘nudge’ and ‘libertarian paternalism’ have become increasingly popular in academia and among public policy makers (Conly, 2012; Kahneman, 2012; Lunn, 2014; Schwartz, 2014; Sunstein, 2014). Behavioural economics and nudge are two different concepts, indeed  ‘The former is a scientific subdiscipline; the latter is a particular way to apply its findings to policy, which holds that policymakers should avoid regulations that limit choice (bans, caps, etc.) but can use behavioural science to direct people towards better choices’ (Lunn, 2014).

The concept of nudge and libertarian paternalism are entangled in academic debates and public policy domains because choice architecture consists in influencing people’s decisions by limiting their freedom in the name of ‘what is good’ for the state. Indeed, a nudge is defined by Sustein and Thaler as ‘a function of (I) any attempt at influencing people’s judgment, choice or behaviour in a predictable way (1) that is made possible because of cognitive boundaries, biases, routines and habits in individual and social decision-making posing barriers for people to perform rationally in their own declared self-interests and which (2) works by making use of those boundaries, biases, routines, and habits as integral parts of such attempts’ (2003). 


What is libertarian paternalism ? 

This concept deals with the other side of the coin or the preservation of freedom of choice. Indeed paternalism was defined by Thaler and Sustein in 2003 as part of the ‘American economic Review’ with respect to paternalistic policies. They defined a policy as paternalistic if it influences ‘the choices of the affected parties in a way that makes these parties better off’ (Sunstein and Thaler, 2003). Furthermore, it is called ‘libertarian paternalism’ because it does not involve any coercive attempt, rather it is an approach that preserves freedom of choice, though authorising institutions to steer people in a direction that promotes their welfare (Thaler and Sunstein, 2003). Many argued that their definition of nudge and paternalism is a contradiction itself, but more information is needed to understand the relationship between paternalism and nudge (Hansen, 2016; Mitchell, 2004). 

According to the two economists, libertarian paternalism is a soft paternalism because, besides anticipating or tracking people’s predicted choices, it also voluntarily aims to influence them in the precise direction of improving their lives (Thaler and Sunstein, 2003). A nudge by Thaler and Sustein refers to the aspects of choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour without explicitly forbidding any alternative. To make an example with their own words ‘Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009). How do we decide among alternatives? Is there room to be influenced? According to their vision, social psychology, behavioural economics and cognitive psychology have shown that human rationality is bounded in terms of willpower, self interest and rationality.

Thus, these might explain the gap between good intentions and behaviour. A  nudge can be defined as any aspect of a choice architecture that modifies people’s behaviour without banning any options or heavily changing economic incentives (Hansen, 2016).


When does nudge merge with public policy? 

The European behavioural insights in policy report explains the different behaviourally informed interventions that have been implemented inside Europe (Lourenco et al., 2016). The domains in which behavioural principles have been applied spans from food waste to finance, from consumer choice to employment. In many countries all over the continent the receipt based tax lotteries have become an increasing success. Indeed receipts become tax lotteries, leveraging the individuals’ overestimation of low probabilities, this eventually increases the tracking of consumers’ expenses and it is a project still used in Malta, Slovakia, Portugal, Romania, Poland and Italy. 

With respect to the environment-friendly transport choice, in the Netherlands, advanced in the use of behaviourally informed public policies, the Ministry of infrastructure and environment promoted and implemented the project ‘Optimizing Use’ where national, regional public and private entities collaborate to improve the road construction, the waterway and the accessibility to public transport with the aim to minimize traffic in the busy areas. The project has been implemented through the help of behavioural principles, such as increasing the availability of bicycles in the stations rather than promoting government sponsored vouchers to buy green products, like Italy (Platform Beter Benutten; Savage et al., 2011).


Driving licences, tobacco and health

Lastly, taking into consideration the driving license, many countries such as Bulgaria, Croatia, France, Italy, Latvia, Luxembourg, Lithuania, Poland and Spain, give to the newly drivers 20 points (Traffic Law enforcement across EU, 2011). The driver can gain 2 points every 2 years of good behaviour up to 20 points overall. Although every traffic violation incurs a specific penalty, this decremental point system triggers a loss aversion in the driver, that will be necessarily more inclined to avoid the revocation of the license (Linkiesta, 2013). The decremental point system was introduced in 2003, when official statistics reported 265,402 road accidents. After the implementation the number of accidents decreased by 22,5% to 205,638. 

Similarly, behavioural principles have been applied in health-related fields too, such as in the fight against tobacco consumption. France, Ireland and UK implemented the plain packaging policy for tobacco products in order to leverage framing and affect to make the boxes less attractive and desirable, and prominence by steering the attention to the potential diseases (WHO, 2015; Wakefield et al., 2002) . Data on this specific policy need to be collected, as it is progress, nevertheless it is expected to diminish tobacco consumption among youngsters (Tobacco Control, 2015). 


How is nudge being implemented in hygiene behaviour change? 

Behaviourally-informed policies are at the centre of the debate among academics and practitioners because of their empirical nature. Indeed the application of behavioural insights to policies is an inductive process because it requires observations of behaviour either to add new insight or to transfer the same insights to other domains (Troussard and Van Bavel, 2018). As a matter of fact, behavioural insights can be applied to different domains and in different stages of the policy-making process. 

By taking into account the social influences on behaviour as well as the normative role of socio-cultural norms, behavioural insights and nudges have been applied in different domains. For example, Opower worked with energy companies to divulge data to customers about the amount of energy they use, comparing their consumption to others’. In this way, the information about energetic consumption becomes salient and the initiative brought about energy savings of 2-3 % (Behavioural Insights Team, 2011; Whitehead et al., 2014). Social influence has been eventually exploited in communication in specific policy domains. In the spreading of the worldwide pandemic, behaviour change interventions have been particularly important.


Why is it that powerful?

Nudges can be very powerful in promoting hygiene behaviour change especially when it comes to the exploitation of socio-cultural norms. The Programme Saniya is an initiative taking place in Burkina Faso aiming to promote personal hygiene and hand washing among mothers. The neoclassical approach would have argued on the danger of germs and the associated risk of contracting diseases. However, social norms can be more powerful: by steering the importance of the aesthetic value of washing hands and the social respect deriving from it, Programme Saniya used the cultural importance associated with these values to implement behaviour change. 

Drawing another example on the power of nudge to promote hygiene and behaviour change in covid era, a recent study using observation cues, in this case observing eyes, wanted to demonstrate that the sensation of being watched resulted in socially desirable behaviour. Indeed past studies showed how the perception of being watched questioned personal ethic by reducing antinormative behaviours and engaging in a socially desirable manner ( Bateson et al., 2013; Ekström, 2012Haley and Fessler, 2005; Nettle et al., 2012; Feinberg et al., 2012; Exley, 2018). The experimental study consisted in placing pictures of watching eyes on the sanitizing dispensers and cleaning equipment and it showed a significant increase in the manipulated condition than in the control condition.



The implementation of behavioural principles into policies is very well innovative as it opens up possibilities by overcoming the traditional assumptions based upon neoclassical thinking. It is of fundamental value as it takes into consideration the possible influences on human behaviour using them to make more effective policies. Nevertheless, the application of these principles is debated and contested with respect to its data-driven nature, its effectiveness and ultimately its moral nature. A close collaboration between academics and policy-makers is thus encouraged here as it may bring to fruitful collaborations and rich policy drafts. Even though behavioural science could complement rather than substitute traditional policy approaches, it is worth considering it because, as policies address people’s behaviour, interdisciplinarity might be the answer to policy success. 


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Autore dell’articolo*: Ilaria Miligi, esperta in psicologia politica e scienze comportamentali, ricercatrice in psicologia sociale presso Università cattolica del Sacro Cuore e membra del think tank Trinità dei Monti. Dottoressa in Global Governance all’Università di Roma Tor Vergata e dottoressa in Political Psychology  presso University of Birmingham (UK). 


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