To nudge is one thing, to nanny quite another

Behavioural economics, the application of psychological insights to economic theories and problems, has been growing in influence for decades. But with the publication of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s Nudge, it seems to have struck policy primetime – and as with many once-good ideas, it has mutated. I recently attended a meeting at one government department at which the conversation rarely strayed from the question of how the latest marketing tricks could be used to get citizens to behave as the nanny state preferred.

At a seminar for the UK’s government economic service on applying behavioural economics to public policy, I therefore expected to be the lone voice of caution – especially since fellow panellists included Dan Goldstein, a psychologist, and Pete Lunn, author of Basic Instincts, a popularisation of behavioural ideas. I was wrong: while everyone was impressed with the potential contribution of psychology and neuroscience to economics, they all seemed queasy about how quickly behavioural economics has appeared as a policy panacea.

Lunn began by displaying Poggendorff’s optical illusion, in which a diagonal line passes behind a vertical block, creating the impression of two separate but parallel lines. Thaler and Sunstein have a similar optical illusion at the beginning of chapter one of Nudge. Their point: the human brain has evolved to take short cuts in the way it processes information, short cuts that sometimes lead us astray. Hence, sometimes we could use a little help in nudging us towards the correct decision when we make mistakes.

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Tim Harford’s blog

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Tim, also known as the Undercover Economist, writes about the economics of everyday life.