A NUDGE AND A WINK By Josva Jensen Good design tends to go unnoticed. Anyone can appreciate a finely-tuned orchestra in a concert hall without observing the composition of the walls, the contours of the eaves. How many people look at the other-worldly dimensions of an acoustic space and comprehend the science that allows an actor’s sibilant sounds to sharpen without becoming shrill? Or grasp how pro- clamations echo but don’t collide? Is it possible to quantify why one person can find a particular voice pleasing but another does not? That discipline is certainly esoteric, but there are more commonplace yet inconspicuous elements of design. Many of these fea- tures conform to “nudge theory” – the premise that individuals can be discretely guided to compliant behavior. The formalized hypothesis, put forward by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, arose from the observation that people frequently make selections that seem antithetical to their best interests. Behaviorists examine the cognitive biases that drive decision-making in order to countermand or take advantage of these tendencies. One of the clearest illustrations is the horoscope phenomenon, beneficiary of the Barnum effect. The appeal relies on an inclin- ation to personally identify with vague descriptions, which could apply to broad swathes of people, if these traits are perceived as positive. By believing the depictions are specific to oneself, the reader is inclined to impose his own meaning on the state- ments, affirming their validity. This social bias, alternatively known as the Forer effect, is shown to carry greater weight with subjects prone to trusting in the paranormal, though components have been employed in personality tests.   The “nudge” premise has application beyond psychology – primarily political science, economics– and is manifested in the wider world through conscious methods and organization. A public trash receptacle will be a muted brown and have a small, circular aperture, while the adjacent recycling can is a bold blue or green, a larger, square opening lending convenience. In more obvious techniques, one container is marked “landfill” and appreciably smaller than its counterpart. Naturally, the con- sumer is being prompted to conserve, to be environmentally responsible. Pressure is applied by using language with a markedly negative connotation. The concomitant designs make it simpler to recycle primarily by being in our way and not re- quiring any additional effort. The theory has found favor in the administration of President Obama, with Sunstein’s appointment to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. More notable is the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – nicknamed “Nudge Unit” – established by the UK coalition government in 2010 with the principal objective of saving the state money. The organization collaborated with the National Health Service and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to increase organ donation by aiming registration re- quests at web users renewing their car tax, resulting in an estimated annual increase of 100,000 donors. <http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication-EAST_FA_WEB.pdf> In addition, BIT orchestrated a trial whereby drivers that failed to pay excise duty would receive a picture of their vehicle with the standard notice. Payment rates increased by a reported 9% during the period. <Plimmer, Gill. “UK Cabinet Office ‘nudge’ team to be spun off into private group.” Financial Times, 5 February 2014. Web. 12 December 2016> UK Court Services were likewise able to double fine payments by issuing personalized text messages to offenders ten days prior to sending bailiffs. <http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp-content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication-EAST_FA_WEB.pdf> After privatizing, Behavioural Insights Limited, as it is now known, has advised various governments across the world, stimu- lating revenues through more than 100 policy refinements. It has been demonstrated that their modifications have a limited lifespan, however. When personal text messages encouraging participation in public programs supplanted the Singaporean state-sponsored medium of informational cartoons, the final results suggested the announcements were far less effective as people became accustomed to the mechanism. <S.K. “The limits of nudging”, 24 July 2015. Web. 12 December 2016> Key to the nudge theory is the desire to promote beneficial habits without restricting choice. This is most simply achieved by presenting the preferred option as the default. Relying on an aversion to unnecessary complexity, the endorsed behavior may be reached without coercion. We see this most clearly through interminable end-user license agreements and opt-out notices. The chief hazard of instating defaults is their trend toward building and protecting monopolies. Consider Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Like the prescribed browser on a new PC, the pervasiveness of search engine optimization (SEO) dictates con- sumerism as it channels spending towards increasingly dominant companies, establishing them as de facto. Government policy may also provide “nudges” to promote favorable practices that are really self-serving or capricious. There has certainly been criticism that most efforts are targeted at boosting administrative revenue without offsetting spending cuts. In Britain, £20 bil- lion is to be carved from public services over a three-year period. Less than 3% of that figure has been gleaned from adapta- tions of the intensive behavioral research and trials. Arguably, government has more to gain by focusing on other efficiency measures and would breed discontent by pursuing eco- nomically desperate practices in the interest of a political agenda. While conservation can be fostered through subsidies for ef- ficient vehicles and alternative energy, that cannot be permitted to detract from essential public services, especially as the rewards for becoming more green are exclusively limited to those that are at least moderately well-off. Regardless of the per- ceived moral good of environmental protection, the taxes of those reliant on affordable healthcare, social security and educa- tional assistance cannot be diverted to fund what, at its worst, has become a luxury fetish. As much as good design aids function and can subtly encourage better, more conscientious behavior, it is positive reinforcement, not coercion. Notionally, nudge theory also allows for choice. In practice, it can quite easily subvert our volition. January 2017
A NUDGE AND A WINK By Josva Jensen Good design tends to go unnoticed. Anyone can appreciate a finely-tuned orchestra in a concert hall without observing the composition of the walls, the contours of the eaves. How many people look at the other-worldly dimensions of an acoustic space and comprehend the science that allows an actor’s sibil- ant sounds to sharpen without becoming shrill? Or grasp how proclamations echo but don’t collide? Is it possible to quantify why one person can find a particular voice pleasing but an- other does not? That discipline is certainly esoteric, but there are more com- monplace yet inconspicuous elements of design. Many of these features conform to “nudge theory” – the premise that individuals can be discretely guided to compliant behavior. The formalized hypothesis, put forward by economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein, arose from the ob- servation that people frequently make selections that seem an- tithetical to their best interests. Behaviorists examine the cognitive biases that drive decision-making in order to coun- termand or take advantage of these tendencies. One of the clearest illustrations is the horoscope phenomenon, beneficiary of the Barnum effect. The appeal relies on an in- clination to personally identify with vague descriptions, which could apply to broad swathes of people, if these traits are per- ceived as positive. By believing the depictions are specific to oneself, the reader is inclined to impose his own meaning on the statements, affirming their validity. This social bias, altern- atively known as the Forer effect, is shown to carry greater weight with subjects prone to trusting in the paranormal, though components have been employed in personality tests.   The “nudge” premise has application beyond psychology – primarily political science, economics– and is manifested in the wider world through conscious methods and organization. A public trash receptacle will be a muted brown and have a small, circular aperture, while the adjacent recycling can is a bold blue or green, a larger, square opening lending conveni- ence. In more obvious techniques, one container is marked “landfill” and appreciably smaller than its counterpart. Naturally, the consumer is being prompted to conserve, to be environmentally responsible. Pressure is applied by using lan- guage with a markedly negative connotation. The concomitant designs make it simpler to recycle primarily by being in our way and not requiring any additional effort. The theory has found favor in the administration of President Obama, with Sunstein’s appointment to the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. More notable is the Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – nicknamed “Nudge Unit” – established by the UK coalition government in 2010 with the principal objective of saving the state money. The organiza- tion collaborated with the National Health Service and the Driver and Vehicle Licensing Agency to increase organ dona- tion by aiming registration requests at web users renewing their car tax, resulting in an estimated annual increase of 100,000 donors. <http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp- content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication- EAST_FA_WEB.pdf> In addition, BIT orchestrated a trial whereby drivers that failed to pay excise duty would receive a picture of their vehicle with the standard notice. Payment rates increased by a reported 9% during the period. <Plimmer, Gill. “UK Cabinet Office ‘nudge’ team to be spun off into private group.” Financial Times, 5 February 2014. Web. 12 December 2016> UK Court Services were likewise able to double fine payments by issuing personalized text messages to offenders ten days prior to sending bailiffs. <http://www.behaviouralinsights.co.uk/wp- content/uploads/2015/07/BIT-Publication- EAST_FA_WEB.pdf> After privatizing, Behavioural Insights Limited, as it is now known, has advised various governments across the world, stimulating revenues through more than 100 policy refine- ments. It has been demonstrated that their modifications have a limited lifespan, however. When personal text messages en- couraging participation in public programs supplanted the Singaporean state-sponsored medium of informational car- toons, the final results suggested the announcements were far less effective as people became accustomed to the mechanism. <S.K. “The limits of nudging”, 24 July 2015. Web. 12 December 2016> Key to the nudge theory is the desire to promote beneficial habits without restricting choice. This is most simply achieved by presenting the preferred option as the default. Relying on an aversion to unnecessary complexity, the endorsed behavior may be reached without coercion. We see this most clearly through interminable end-user license agreements and opt-out notices. The chief hazard of instating defaults is their trend toward building and protecting monopolies. Consider Microsoft, Google and Amazon. Like the prescribed browser on a new PC, the pervasiveness of search engine optimization (SEO) dictates consumerism as it channels spending towards increas- ingly dominant companies, establishing them as de facto. Government policy may also provide “nudges” to promote fa- vorable practices that are really self-serving or capricious. There has certainly been criticism that most efforts are tar- geted at boosting administrative revenue without offsetting spending cuts. In Britain, £20 billion is to be carved from pub- lic services over a three-year period. Less than 3% of that fig- ure has been gleaned from adaptations of the intensive behavioral research and trials. Arguably, government has more to gain by focusing on other efficiency measures and would breed discontent by pursuing economically desperate practices in the interest of a political agenda. While conservation can be fostered through subsidies for efficient vehicles and alternative energy, that cannot be permitted to detract from essential public services, especially as the rewards for becoming more green are exclusively lim- ited to those that are at least moderately well-off. Regardless of the perceived moral good of environmental protection, the taxes of those reliant on affordable healthcare, social security and educational assistance cannot be diverted to fund what, at its worst, has become a luxury fetish. As much as good design aids function and can subtly encourage better, more conscien- tious behavior, it is positive reinforcement, not coercion. Notionally, nudge theory also allows for choice. In practice, it can quite easily subvert our volition. January 2017