The Ethics of Influence - Canadian Government Executive
Bookshelf with Harvey SchachterGovernmentLeadership
February 16, 2017

The Ethics of Influence

As understanding of social behaviour increases through intensified research, many government executives are learning about the art of nudging. Governments are establishing nudge units to encourage the citizenry to adopt desired behaviours and, less formally, ministries are trying other routes than laws and regulations to get results.

You might well be a nudge artist today. You are more likely to be one in the future.

“Nudges steer people in particular directions but also allow them to go their own way,” Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard University, former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, and co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness, writes in his latest book.

“A reminder is a nudge; so is a warning. A GPS device nudges, a default rule nudges. Disclosure of relevant information (about the risks of smoking or the costs of borrowing) counts as a nudge. A recommendation is a nudge.”

More specifically, he notes you can nudge through:

  • Disclosure of factual information about caloric content in foods;
  • Simplifying applications for job training or financial aid;
  • Warnings on cigarette packages;
  • Reminders of bills that are about to become due or of the availability of benefits;
  • Increasing ease and convenience on a web site or in an airport;
  • Personalizing information sent to recipients, such as offering an individual appointment time;
  • Timing your messages better so they arrive when they will get more attention;
  • Making potential benefits very clear to those who might enjoy them – increasing the salience of information.

He notes that nudges can have substantial impact. In Denmark, automatic enrolment in retirement plans has a much larger effect than substantial tax incentives. “It is worth pausing over this remarkable finding. A mere shift in the default rule, from opt-in to opt-out, has a much bigger impact than giving people real money to encourage them to opt in,” he says.

In the U.S., simplifying financial aid forms for college students had as large an effect in promoting college attendance as a several thousand dollar increase in financial aid. A little simplification can go a long way.

At a university in Sweden, switching the default setting on printers from single-sided to double-sided produced a 15 per cent decrease in the use of paper. In the U.S, efforts to inform consumers about how their energy use compares to neighbours had the same impact reducing energy use as a large spike – 8 to 20 per cent – in the cost of electricity.

But if you’re starting to think nudge, Sunstein wants you to also think ethics. You’re moving into an area some might consider sleight of hand and while tempting it could also edge you into unethical behaviour. That’s the focus of the new book: The Ethics of Influence: Government in the Age of Behavioral Science.

He says the ethical considerations can revolve around whether the nudges promote or undermine people’s welfare, autonomy, dignity, and self-government. In ordinary life we have a duty to warn people who are at serious risk and the same applies to government. If it fails to nudge it could be not living up to its ethical obligation. Disclosure of information about the nutritional content of foods promotes both welfare and autonomy. Automatic voter registration promotes self-government while the various laws some U.S. states have employed to nudge people not to vote limit self-government.

On the other hand, nudges are manipulative. But that may not necessarily be bad. He argues an action does not count as manipulative merely because it is an effort to influence another person’s behaviour. Romantic partners will sometimes manipulate each other and they accept that as fine at times, even fun. “A calorie label and an energy efficiency label are classic nudges, but they are not ordinarily counted as forms of manipulation. So long as a private or public institution is informing people, or ‘just providing the facts,’ it is hard to complain of manipulation. There is also a large difference between persuading people and manipulating them,” he writes.

Some governments have attempted to turn their citizens into puppets. Nobody wants to be a puppet on a string and it is particularly bad, he notes, to be a puppet of government. “Manipulation takes multiple forms. It has at least 50 shades, and it is reasonable to wonder if they are tightly defined with one another,” he says.

Trying to define manipulation, he says it occurs to the extent an act does not sufficiently engage or appeal to people’s capacity for reflection and deliberation. Most nudges don’t fall within that category. In general, information disclosure is not manipulative since it is appealing to people’s deliberative capacities. Reminders counter inattention and procrastination but aren’t manipulative. Warnings, however, can cross the line but most are just giving people an understanding of risks – so again, appealing to their deliberative side. On the other hand, he suggests long, complicated forms, requiring calculations that strain people’s abilities, can be manipulative by overloading people.

“The problem of manipulation arises when choosers can justly complain that because of the intentional actions of a manipulator, they have not, in a sense, had a fair chance to make a decision on their own. Often the distinguishing mark of manipulation is a justified sense of betrayal. Having found out what happened, or having reflected a bit, people think they have not been treated properly,” he writes.

The most obvious problem with manipulation, he says, is that it can insult both autonomy and dignity. On the issue of autonomy, it might move people towards coercion, robbing them of their ability to act. From the standpoint of dignity, manipulation can be humiliating, leaving the person feeling tricked.

He moves from these musings to  check how people feel, through a U.S. survey he conducted, finding respondents indeed concerned with reflection and deliberation, as well as whether the nudge was towards beneficial ends. There was substantial support for mandatory calorie labels at chain restaurants, mandatory graphic warnings on cigarette packages, and automatic enrolment in savings plans, subject to opt out provisions. He even found support for what he considered controversial nudges such as listing the name of  incumbent politicians first on the ballot; changing a woman’s name automatically to her husband’s upon marriage, with an opt-out provision; and federal labelling of products from companies that have repeatedly violated labour laws.

But other nudges were rejected, for two main reasons. First, people don’t want nudges that appear to have illegitimate goals, such as favouring a particular religion or political party (even, it should be noted in a partisan era for the U.S., by people of that religion or party). Second, people oppose nudges that are inconsistent with the interest or values of most of the choosers. While they accepted an automatic name change for women they rejected it for men, for example, as that contradicted societal norms.

“When people are deciding whether to favour default rules, the size of the group of disadvantaged people undoubtedly matters. If a default rule harms a majority, it is unlikely to have much appeal. If the disadvantaged group is large (but not a majority) people might reject a default rule and favour active choosing instead,” he notes.

He also more tentatively points to a third principle that seemed favoured: Before certain losses can occur, people must affirmatively express their wishes. Organ donation provides an example. Respondents supported a requirement that when somebody is obtaining a driver’s licence they should indicate whether they want to donate upon death (i.e. active choosing). But a default rule in favour of organ donations unless individuals opt out was not acceptable as affirmative consent is missing.

The first instinct when considering a nudge is whether it will work – how effective it will be. But Sunstein adds a new dimension: Is it moral or unduly manipulative? His book is academic, slow going at times, but government executives can benefit from his insights.

About this author

Harvey Schachter

Harvey Schachter is a writer, specializing in management and business issues. He writes three weekly columns for the Globe and Mail and The Leader’s Bookshelf column for Canadian Government Executive, and a regular column and features for Kingston Life magazine. Harvey was editor of the 2004 book Memos to the Prime Minister: What Canada Can Be in the 21st Century. He was the ghostwriter on The Three Pillars of Public Management by Ole Ingstrup and Paul Crookall, and editor of Getting Clients, Keeping Clients by Dan Richards. A McGill commerce graduate, Harvey spent more than 15 years in a variety of positions at The Kingston Whig-Standard, including editor and planning and promotions manager. He won two National Newspaper Awards for his writing and a national Owl Award for a marketing program he created at the newspaper.

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