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The Golden Rule of Nudge

Nudge unto others as you would have them nudge unto you.

Do not recommend to apply incentives to others that you would not want for yourself.

Background

I was reading this article by William Davies about Britain’s Kafkaesque immigration policies.

The background, roughly, is this: Various English politicians promised that the net flow of immigrants to the U.K. would decrease. But the British government had little control over the flow of immigrants to the U.K., because most of them were coming from other E.U. countries. So they’d pretty much made a promise they couldn’t keep. The only way the government could even try to reach their targets was to convince people currently living in the U.K. to leave. And one way to do this was to make their lives more difficult. Apparently the government focused this effort on people living in Britain who’d originally come from former British colonies in the Caribbean, throwing paperwork at them and threatening their immigration status.

Davies explains:

The Windrush generation’s immigration status should never have been in question, and the cause of their predicament is recent: the 2014 Immigration Act, which contained the flagship policies of the then home secretary, Theresa May. Foremost among them was the plan to create a ‘hostile environment’, with the aim of making it harder for illegal immigrants to work and live in the UK . . .

It’s almost as if, on discovering that law alone was too blunt an instrument for deterring and excluding immigrants, May decided to weaponise paperwork instead. The ‘hostile environment’ strategy was never presented just as an effective way of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants: more important, it was intended as a way of destroying their ability to build normal lives. The hope, it seemed, was that people might decide that living in Britain wasn’t worth the hassle. . . .

The thread linking benefit sanctions and the ‘hostile environment’ is that both are policies designed to alter behaviour dressed up as audits. Neither is really concerned with accumulating information per se: the idea is to use a process of constant auditing to punish and deter . . .

And then he continues:

The coalition government was fond of the idea of ‘nudges’, interventions that seek to change behaviour by subtle manipulation of the way things look and feel, rather than through regulation. Nudgers celebrate the sunnier success stories, such as getting more people to recycle or to quit smoking, but it’s easy to see how the same mentality might be applied in a more menacing way.

Nudge for thee but not for me?

This all reminds me of a general phenomenon, that “incentives matter” always seems like a good motto for other people, but we rarely seem to want it for ourselves. For example, there’s lots of talk about how being worried about losing your job is a good motivator to work hard (or, conversely, that a secure job is a recipe for laziness), but we don’t want job insecurity for ourselves. (Sure, lots of people who aren’t tenured professors or secure government employees envy those of us with secure jobs, and maybe they think we don’t deserve them, but I don’t think these people are generally asking for less security in their own jobs.)

More generally, it’s my impression that people often think that “nudges” are a good way to get other people to behave in desirable ways, without these people wanting to be “nudged” themselves. For example, did Jeremy Bentham put himself in a Panopticon to ensure his own good behavior?

There are exceptions, though. I like to stick other people in my office so it’s harder for me to drift off and be less productive. And lots of smokers are supportive of polities that make it less convenient to smoke, as this can make it easier for them to quit and harder for them to relapse.

Summary

With all that in mind, I’d like to propose a Golden Rule of Nudge: Nudge unto others as you would have them nudge unto you.

Do not recommend to apply incentives to others that you would not want for yourself.

21 Comments

  1. Lord says:

    As opposed to the Platinum Rule, nudge unto others as they would have you nudge them, at least if they gave it any thought? Since nudges can only benefit the average they are unnecessary or irrelevant to many though that doesn’t mean they would object, only that their choice differs and they are willing to make it.

    • Andrew says:

      Lord:

      “As they would have you nudge them” is tricky, because the nature of nudge is that it’s supposed to change people’s preferences.

      For example, suppose I’m a smoker and I get nudged by anti-smoking laws to smoke less. Maybe I would not have wanted to be nudged at first, but then at the end I’m happy that I got nudged. What I, as the nudgee, wants, can change. This is part of the way that “nudge” involves violation of classical utility theory.

    • jrc says:

      It also seems to me that the phrase “nudges can only benefit the average” misses a key point, namely the nudges can also only benefit the very few, or, for that matter, no one at all, while also causing significant harm to some (in terms of the required compensation to make you indifferent relative to your pre-nudge state).

      I think a key point about Andrew’s hesitance in embracing “nudges” (and mine too) is that they are often paternalistic in nature, and not just in a way that corrects some market failure. I think that the kind of “ordeal mechanisms” you see in public transfer program enrollment are exactly that kind of paternalistic nudge – the targeting benefits of putting people through the paces are minimal, and the real motivation is paternalism.

  2. Steve says:

    I like your Golden Rule for Nudges, but it is problematic for the same reason that the Golden Rule is problematic. I am not the same person from one moment to the next. Who gets to decide the way I would like to be treated? My present self or my future self. Your smoking analogy captures the issue but deceptively seems unproblematic only because we imagine that rational smokers recognize the habit is bad for them and would drop it but for the grip of addiction. However, we can easily imagine more problematic cases. Imagine a policy to nudge people to live in urban centers, which increases the tax base, improves living conditions and the standard of living of those who live in cities. Now suppose that I started off wanting to live a rural life, but these nudges pushed me to a city, where I eventually have a great standard of living, which I love. I appreciate the policy in retrospect, but would have opposed it at the outset. Has the Golden Rule of Nudges been upheld or violated. You might think that it is obvious that the present self has priority, after all, you know for certain what you want today, but can only guess at your preferences in the future. But, this wrong. In any practical situation, you are going to have to rely on data about peoples preferences and on how they will change. There is no reason a priori that your estimate of people’s preferences now will be more certain than your estimate of how they will change. Even your example of employment insecurity is not obvious. I can look back with appreciation on professors or bosses that put enormous pressure on me, which in retrospect made me more competent, but at the time seemed unfair. Why should my past self’s view of the matter trump my better informed view now, and why should my view now trump my future self’s view. Isn’t this how we justify all of those nudges that we give to our children? “Some day, you’ll appreciate this!” You may call this paternalism, but it is only paternalistic if we are wrong. If we are right, then we have treated others in the way in which they will want to have been treated even if it wasn’t the way in which they wanted to be treated. I don’t have a solution to this problem, but I think it is very important when considering policies involving “nudges.”

    • Andrew says:

      Steve:

      You have some good points. But I want to pick on one thing you say that I disagree with. You write, “You may call this paternalism, but it is only paternalistic if we are wrong. . . .” I don’t think it’s correct to think of “paternalistic” as a bad thing. Paternalistic can be just fine in the right context.

      • Steve says:

        I was (incorrectly) assuming that you were assuming paternalism is a bad thing. At any rate, my point is that if we think of paternalism as bad because we are deciding what is in someone’s best interest without their input, the problem is inescapable in certain situations because we have to decide which person’s preferences to defer to, their current preferences or the one’s we expect them to have after we intervene.

  3. Alberto says:

    I doubt whether a bureaucratic nightmare designed to destroy the “ability to build normal lives” counts as a nudge. Nudges are supposed to be gentle.

    “Nudge unto others as you would have them nudge unto you” is, however, pure gold. I’ll adopt it as my 12th commandment.

  4. Paul Alper says:

    How about “He who nudges last nudges best”? Or, “A nudge by any other name would smell as sweet”? Or, “A nudge in time saves nine.” And, of course from

    http://wordsmith.org/words/noodge.html

    we have “From Yiddish nudyen (to pester, bore), from Polish nudzic. The word developed a variant spelling ‘nudge’ under the influence of the English word ‘nudge’. A cousin of this word is nudnik (a boring pest). First recorded use: 1960.”

    From the same Web source we have a quotation from one of this blog’s favorite whipping boy: “”Rahm Emanuel is willing to be a relentless noodge to keep the herd moving in the right direction.”
    David Brooks; The Soft Side; The New York Times; Oct 5, 2010.

  5. Christian Hennig says:

    This sentence: “But the British government had little control over the flow of immigrants to the U.K., because most of them were coming from other E.U. countries” …was used in the Brexit campaign to convince voters that leaving the UK is vital to get immigration numbers under control, but nobody denies that there had always been a substantial proportion of non-EU immigration, so it is not true that the government had “little control”. Actually according to this website https://fullfact.org/immigration/eu-migration-and-uk/ non-EU net immigration has always been higher than EU net immigration.

  6. Z says:

    I think I have a narrower idea of what a nudge is. Under my definition it’s almost necessarily pretty harmless. To me, for something to qualify as a nudge it should meet three criteria:

    1. Equipoise. I define equipoise in this context to mean that the “on” and “off” settings for the nudge seem equally reasonable and that the decision of which position the switch is in feels like it could be arbitrary. For example, opt-in vs opt-out for a choice I’m offered in a clear way.

    2. Locality. Nudges have only very localized effects, limited to the decisions they’re meant to influence and downstream effects of those decisions. They do not have far reaching consequences beyond the decision they influence.

    3. Weakness. It should still be easy for you to decide to take the path not encouraged by the nudge.

    I don’t think job security meets any of these criteria. It’s not arbitrary, since people involved have strong reasons to prefer one setting. It’s not local, since, for example, it impacts morale in addition to any specific aspect of job performance one might wish to influence. And it’s certainly not weak. Imposing a policy that reduces my job security would not be nudging me as much as placing a guillotine over my head.

    Maybe my idea of a nudge isn’t the common one?

    • Martha (Smith) says:

      I agree that what Andrew is talking about is much more than what I would call a nudge. I think of the classical example of a nudge being something like making the “desired” option the default (e.g., the default is for an employee to contribute to their IRA by payroll deduction each month, but the employee can easily opt out.)

  7. Jim H. says:

    There’s a great quote in Heinlein’s The Moon is a Harsh Mistress along these lines. I forget the exact quote, but the gist of it is: people like to suggest laws to prevent others from doing things that they shouldn’t do (in the proposer’s opinion, of course), but no one suggests laws to prevent themselves from doing things they know that they themselves shouldn’t do.

  8. Mike Maltz says:

    We should extend this to laws. For example, *anyone* getting money from a governmental source, be it via welfare or salary, by way of income or being elected, should have to pee in a cup.

  9. Nick says:

    To be fair, if the person claim to think that the risk of losing your job is a good incentive to work harder is an elected official, they will be coming from a position of personal experience. One of the disadvantages of democracy is that it tends, to some degree, to attract people for whom losing their job in a few years time is not always an existential-level crisis, either because they are that sort of person or because they know that after leaving office there will be plenty of 6- and perhaps even 7-figure consulting gigs available.

  10. Patrick says:

    Not directly related to policy as in the U.K. example, but there were about a dozen recent articles on nudging and informed consent in the Journal of Medical Ethics (e.g. Simkulet (2018). Nudging, informed consent, and bullshit. https://jme.bmj.com/content/44/8/536).

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