Why Nudging is not enough

Posted by on Mar 23, 2010 in behaviour change, Science | 13 Comments


Regular readers will know I've long championed the new insights into human beings that we've come to know as Behavioral Economics. Indeed, you could suggest that my mission has been to challenge the received wisdom about human behaviour – to unpick the assumptions embedded in our practices in marketing, management and public policy.

For example, back in 2005 I wrote a paper (anyone got a copy?) which discussed – at some length – the cluster of cognitive biases which together make up much of BE's armoury (see this Cabinet Office paper for a full description Download MINDSPACE-full).

Again and again, In various contexts, I've returned repeatedly to the practical argument for BE – the real difficulties in bringing about actual behavior change (from the original HERD paper to the various iterations of the thinking)  and the need to bring cognitive and behavioural science to bear on how we think about it. And of course, I've been a big supporter of both the IPA's BE initiative and the RSA's Social Brain project which deals with much the same set of issues. And I'm delighted that politicians and policy makers of all hues are embracing it.

But I'm beginning to think that maybe the success of BE is making us feel complacent. Maybe it's stopping us really pressing on.

Think of it this way:

Behavioural Economics is a response – a step on – from the old rational agent model of human behaviour. It conceptualises humans not as rational agents who accurately perceive the world around them and act appropriately but as faulty agents, with lazy minds (as Kahnemann puts it) – with built-in quirks and biases in our perceptional machinery.

But – and here's the big thing – it still views humans as at heart independent agents; human behaviour as grounded fundamentally at the level of individuals.

Of course, BE represents a big improvement on the old model and we'd all do well to get a grip on the insights it offers and I can see how much easier it is to slip from rational agent models to the kind of faulty agent models implied by BE…but let's be honest: it's only half way to a proper rethink.

The real breakthrough is likely to come from starting to conceptualie humans and human behaviour as fundamentally social (not individual).

Try this: is thinking an individual or social function?


  1. G
    March 23, 2010

    Ultimately all science is approximation.
    The world is too complex to account for everything all the time, so we have to make assumptions to simplify problems.
    Behavioural economists use more detailed models of human psychology but treat individuals in isolation
    Social physicists use much more simply models of human psychology but allow for the complexity of influence between people
    Both approaches can explain different human behaviours remarkably well, we just have to understand when it’s appropriate to use each tool.
    Neither is better, just different.

  2. Mark Earls
    March 23, 2010

    Thanks for that but I think you miss my point, Gethin.
    I buy all you say about the need for simplification, different frames revealing different phenomena and the need to work out the most appropriate frame for the job.
    I’m just not sure what is to be gained by continuing to suppress the most imporatant characteristic of our species, whatever level of granularity you consider the issues. And as I point out above, I’m a big fan of moving on from the old models.
    There’s a lot more to be gained in starting from a social creature and reworking everything from them – Social Physics being just one approach.

  3. Kyle Studstill
    March 23, 2010

    I’ve come to think that one of the difficult things for humans to overcome is the idea that there’s some little mind in the prefrontal cortex that ultimately drives everything we do, and without it we would be some sort of machine without any humanity.
    That’s a big leap to make, considering how little of a role the PFC actually plays in decision-making and behavior, but it’s one we seem naturally compelled to believe.
    We’re deeply attached to the idea of individual volition because for any number of reasons it’s disheartening to think otherwise. Were we okay with the reality that our conscious decision-making is one small part of our “individuality,” then perhaps the challenge of grounding behavioral explanations in places other than the individual wouldn’t be such a challenge.
    Perhaps that natural reluctance to accept the nature of volition re: “individuality” is a place to begin thinking about it.
    Not sure I’m entirely getting at the same idea you are here, Mark, but I’m thinking along the lines of the ideas behind Wegner’s Illusion of Conscious Will and Stephen Johnson’s Emergence.

  4. Peter Korchnak
    March 23, 2010

    In “Connected: The Surprising Power of Our Social Networks and How They Shape Our Lives” Christakis and Fowler submit the same argument, essentially. We are part of and greatly influenced by our social networks. Great book, I highly recommend it.
    The social construction of reality school of sociological thought, e.g. Peter Berger, also analyzes phenomena by their social aspects.
    Humans as social, not rational, beings. Now that’s a thought!

  5. Josh Weiss
    March 23, 2010

    I have to strongly agree about the need for alternate “frames.” What I’m finding as I read more and more about human behavior is that there doesn’t seem to be one model/unifying theory that can adequately explain the processes behind ALL of the decisions we make.
    In some cases, the influence of social considerations is significant, but can we say that it’s always/most often of primary importance? Some would argue that in many cases, the pull of subconscious habit holds sway, in others it IS likely individual rational considerations (i.e., choosing transportation based on price, schedules, etc.), in some cases it has to do with your innate impulsivity, etc. etc.
    As it was stated earlier, trying to describe a complex world isn’t easy. Can we really attribute it most often to one set of factors?

  6. ThePunkRockShop
    March 23, 2010

    As everyone flocks to BE and Nudge, this is a very timely post.
    Rory Sutherland (of whom I’m a big fan) said: “We’ve aligned ourselves with a recognisable and credible scientific discipline [behavioral economics] which we can use to take on the pseudo-science of accountancy which dominates thinking… behaviorial economics can trump accountancy in terms of scientific credibility in a way that marketing language never did”.
    Everyone seems overly-eager for BE to be “the cure”. My trouble with it is that it, too, is a “pseudo-science”. A useful tool? Yes. Some great insights and ideas? Yes. But some rock-solid science for taking on accounting? I’m not so sure.
    I think we need to use Nudge for all it’s worth, but recognise that there is no silver-bullet cure for the advertising/marketing world, and that reality remains awfully complicated. We’re going to have to muddle through with bits of Nudge, bits of Herd, bits of Blue Ocean, bits of Eat the Big Fiish, etc.
    It feels like some are hoping for a unified theory of ‘how it all works’… which I don’t think exists.
    There is no spoon.

  7. Mark Earls
    March 23, 2010

    Kyle and Peter, I think we’re on the same tracks here – Peter your point about our unwillingness to accept the relatively small role for our own individual volition in shaping behaviour is spot on. Kyle – I agree re Connected and made it my book of the year.
    But Josh and Punkrockshop think you’re off kilter here: the point is that seeing human beings as undeniably social creatures is the start of that new pov: if this is right, then we can start to re-think the stuff we’ve only seen in individuals til now as social phenomena – thinking, feeling, etc. Just like it makes no sense to think of language only in terms of a solitary individual (or very little) so with these other functions.
    I’m not suggesting I/we’ve worked it all out but it’s a much bigger and more fruitful area than many have yet realised.
    John Caccioppa’s great book Loneliness tells this great story about zoo-keepers seeking to build the most appropriate enclosure for each speices on the planet. You wouldn’t stretch an emperor penguin’s genetic inheritance by forcing it into a hot, dry desert cage; nor would you put a human into solitary confinement (except – like humans do – to punish it) – humans are social first and foremost and other things only secondarily. This leads us to see all the things we’ve hitherto considered as properties and capabilities of individual humans as things designed for a world of other people.
    Sorry, Josh. There is a frame and it’s “we”.

  8. G
    March 25, 2010

    “This leads us to see all the things we’ve hitherto considered as properties and capabilities of individual humans as things designed for a world of other people”
    There seams to be a distinction between how we think (which we mostly do on our own) and why we think the way we do (to better equip us to form the social networks necessary for our survival/prosperity)
    It’s always struck me that a lot of what it termed irrational behaviour is actually perfectly rational if you look at it from a different perspective.
    The ultimatum game is good example. People reject offers that they feel are not fair even if that means losing out themselves.
    From a purely individual perspective this is irrational. Surely the individuals who act purely in their self-interest would be the ones to gain most significantly and prosper.
    From a social point of view things look very different. While individuals who act in their self-interest would prosper over individuals who don’t. Groups that have learned to cooperate would equally prosper over those that don’t,so there is an incentive to punish selfish behaviour.
    Reciprocity is irrational for individuals but rational for groups.

  9. Seb
    March 26, 2010

    What about COI’s approach?
    In this paper (pg.11 http://bit.ly/8Ratlg), they categorize factors influencing individual behaviour – and used in social psychological models – as such:
    1. Personal (‘micro’) factors which are intrinsic to the individual, such as their level of knowledge or their belief in their ability to change their behaviour and their habits.
    2. Social (‘meso’) factors which are concerned with how individuals relate to each other and the influence of other
    people on their behaviour.
    3. Environmental factors over which individuals have little control. These include both:
    a. local (‘exo’) environmental factors, for example the area in which an individual lives and local shops and facilities, and
    b. wider (‘macro’) environmental factors such as the
    economy or technology.
    I’ve read quite a lot of B.E. papers recently and it’s actually one of the only ones to take ‘social factors’ into account. What do you think Mark?

  10. Mark Earls
    March 26, 2010

    I saw an early version of this thinking and would applaud the initiative. However, while there it starts well in discussing “what influences behaviour?” (e.g. with the quote from Jackson’s review of behaviour change models which says ‘Individual behaviours are deeply embedded in social and institutional contexts. We are guided as much by what others around us say and do, and by the “rules of the game” as we are by personal choice.’) this is almost the last thing we hear about social factors.
    Indeed, pretty quickly we’re back in the realm of individual psychologies which is my point generally (and at the heart of Kyle’s comment above, I suspect).
    Which is a little disappointing but not – perhaps – surprising.

  11. Seb
    March 26, 2010

    Agreed – while they almost over-developed the personal factors, not much is said about social and environmental factors.
    They even admitted that there were very few social psychological models taking those wider factors into account.
    But it’s still a great doc to get one’s head around behavioural economics… along with tens of others!

  12. Pat Kane
    March 27, 2010

    Wondering what you’d make of Jaron Lanier’s You Are Not A Gadget, Mark, which I am currently reviewing – an impassioned plea for ‘digital humanism’ against ‘the hive mind’. Feeling ever so slightly persuaded … that there’s a kind of precipitate groupism that’s coming out of a lot of evolutionarily-informed policy science at the moment. Part of the ambiguity of play (as you know my abiding interest) is that it is BOTH anarchist AND collectivist AND a whole range of other potentiating strategies in between. What’s important are the enabling conditions of play – distance from hunger, surplus of materials, reasonably protected space – which are beginning to look to me like macro-level governance questions for post-scarcity societies.
    I sometimes feel that BEcon and Social Physics are sticking plasters for quite profound failures of political imagination. The situationists used to say “take your dreams for reality”. One could argue that the behavioural limits of ‘Homer Economicus’, so beloved of these thinkers, is an understandable pathology, the opaque recalcitrance of those psychically colonised by the lifestyle dreams of commercial advertising. Govts seem happier to reach for scientisms which justify thinking the least of the citizenry, than embrace schemes like NEFs 21-hour week, or a whole range of futuristic welfare/wellbeing policies, which might support the spirit of autonomy that has been amplified by affluence, education, feminism, the Net, etc.

  13. Mark Earls
    March 30, 2010

    Good question, Pat.
    Not sure I’ve got to the bottom of Lanier’s argument but I keeping getting a strong whiff of Keen-like whine for the individual expert and in particular the dislike of all that the online world does to challenge the heroic creative individual.
    Maybe what’s going on here is our mixing up of ways, means and outcomes: much of human life is lived in the company of others and all the digital world reveals is the frequency of that and whatever the creative individual tells themself about their role in the world doesn’t change that fact. Indeed, it’s probably acting as a useful antidote to these stories – I think social learning theory has a lot to say on the notion of creative uniqueness.
    At the same time, social tendencies do not entail a collectivist outcome: it can do but fragmentation (such as the Big Sort describes) is equally possible and there’s lots of options in between. Distinct from this is the question of tactics – how should we engage with the world?
    That said, I’m taken by your points about “the failure of political imagination”. We’ve quite a lot of rethinking to do here.