Sunday, November 1, 2015

The Power of Nudges, for Good and Bad

[ed. See also: What It Really Means To Be A "Nudge"... the rationale for adopting policies designed to make it more likely that people will act in their own best interests rather than, say, spend money they shouldn’t spend or eat food they shouldn’t consume.(...) how recent advances in behavioral science should inform our attitudes towards rational decision making. Specifically, these behavioral science findings show that people don’t always make rational decisions, raising questions about when or whether outsiders—like governments or employers–should step in to help people avoid making bad choices.]

Nudges, small design changes that can markedly affect individual behavior, have been catching on. These techniques rely on insights from behavioral science, and when used ethically, they can be very helpful. But we need to be sure that they aren’t being employed to sway people to make bad decisions that they will later regret.

Whenever I’m asked to autograph a copy of “Nudge,” the book I wrote with Cass Sunstein, the Harvard law professor, I sign it, “Nudge for good.” Unfortunately, that is meant as a plea, not an expectation.

Three principles should guide the use of nudges:

■ All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

■ It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

■ There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged.

As far as I know, the government teams in Britain and the United States that have focused on nudging have followed these guidelines scrupulously. But the private sector is another matter. In this domain, I see much more troubling behavior.

For example, last spring I received an email telling me that the first prominent review of a new book of mine had appeared: It was in The Times of London. Eager to read the review, I clicked on a hyperlink, only to run into a pay wall. Still, I was tempted by an offer to take out a one-month trial subscription for the price of just £1.

As both a consumer and producer of newspaper articles, I have no beef with pay walls. But before signing up, I read the fine print. As expected, I would have to provide credit card information and would be automatically enrolled as a subscriber when the trial period expired. The subscription rate would then be £26 (about $40) a month. That wasn’t a concern because I did not intend to become a paying subscriber. I just wanted to read that one article.

But the details turned me off. To cancel, I had to give 15 days’ notice, so the one-month trial offer actually was good for just two weeks. What’s more, I would have to call London, during British business hours, and not on a toll-free number. That was both annoying and worrying. As an absent-minded American professor, I figured there was a good chance I would end up subscribing for several months, and that reading the article would end up costing me at least £100.

I spoke to Chris Duncan, a spokesman for The Times of London. He said his company wanted readers to call before canceling to make sure that they appreciated the scope of the paper’s coverage, but when I pointed out the inconvenience this posed to readers outside Britain, he said that the company might rethink that aspect of the policy.

In the meantime, that deal qualifies as a nudge that violates all three of my guiding principles: The offer was misleading, not transparent; opting out was cumbersome; and the entire package did not seem to be in the best interest of a potential subscriber, as opposed to the publisher.

by Richard H. Thaler, NY Times | Read more:
Image: Anthony Freda