It Is Time to Rethink the Policies of Invoking Government Nudges
There has been a lot of buzz going on about nudges ever since Thaler and Sunstein popularized the concept in their book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” published in 2008. Nudges are basically subtle suggestions or motivations devised to change people’s behavior without denying them the freedom to make own decisions. Thaler and Sunstein define nudges as:
Any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
In the absence of evidence-based treatments and vaccines, behavioral nudges were expected to help in encouraging people to maintain social distance, wearing masks, debunking conspiracy theories at the start of the pandemic. Many governments and independent organizations funded projects to devise and study nudges that could bring in a desirable behavior.
Several studies have been conducted across the world to assess the effectiveness of nudges in a pandemic situation. Many of them reported that nudges were not as effective as expected in bringing out a desirable behavior. Informational nudges like pamphlets, text messages etc. seemed to have increased the hand washing habits of people by two percent and the willingness to wear masks by three percent in countries like Columbia and Brazil. Framing messages in loss or gain frame did not seem to have a major impact on deciding the need for and the length of lockdowns in the UK. Similar results were found in a study conducted in the Netherlands to motivate people to maintain hand hygiene in shopping streets. The study concluded as follows:
Our results suggest that stores, and governments, should look for other measures than the tested nudges to improve hand hygiene in the shopping street during the COVID-19 pandemic, either combining different nudges and/or using less subtle methods.
Keeping aside the ‘replication crisis’ in the fields of psychology and economics, there are several reasons why nudges don’t work. One major reason could be attributed to the psychological barriers created by the cultural and contextual features of different countries, locations, and groups. Generalizing the results of studies without ‘context reconnaissance’1 would yield bad results.
It is almost impossible to devise umbrella nudges or interventions that would fit everywhere. To put this into perspective, consider the reasons for vaccine hesitancy in Africa. Years of war and Ebola outbreaks increased the distrust in the products from the west. Along with this, local health beliefs that differ from region to region play a major role in increasing vaccine hesitancy. A single nudge would not be of much help here. This necessitates the need for customized or rather tailor-made interventions that are region specific; homogeneous groups or at least groups with similar traits must be identified. Generalizing the application of nudges or interventions for regions with similar characteristics may also not work. It is quite possible that we overlook the underlying heterogeneity in the groups considered. After all, many social phenomena are inseparably intertwined.
Having said this, one should not exaggerate the effectiveness of nudges in a precarious pandemic situation like this. The effect sizes of the studies cited above indicate that nudges alone are not enough as in the case of organ donation or retirement plans where we observed significant changes. Many governments believe that instead of forcing people to exhibit a desirable behavior, they could just ‘nudge’ them. ‘What is considered as desirable behavior and who decides it’ will take us to the classic debate of libertarian paternalism and its oxymoronic nature.
Thaler himself suggested that the governments should opt for sterner measures like vaccine passports instead of solely relying upon nudges to get people vaccinated. We need the right mix of soft and hard interventions which Thaler calls ‘pushes and shoves’ to motivate people to take vaccines. The sheer simplicity and subtle nature of nudges may make them appear like magic potion to the politicians. It is high time that we realize the actual effectiveness of these interventions and use our limited resources judiciously. As a closing note, here is the conclusion of a paper published in Nature by a group of prominent behavioral scientists written in response to the overuse of half cooked behavioral interventions.
On balance, we hold the view that the social and behavioral sciences have the potential to help us better understand our world. However, we are less sanguine about whether many areas of social and behavioral sciences are mature enough to provide such understanding, particularly when considering life-and-death issues like a pandemic.
Positive results – framing: Nudges for COVID-19 voluntary vaccination: How to explain peer information?
Weijers, R. J., & de Koning, B. B. (2021). Nudging to increase hand hygiene during the COVID-19 pandemic: A field experiment. Canadian Journal of Behavioural Science / Revue canadienne des sciences du comportement, 53(3), 353-357. http://dx.doi.org/10.1037/cbs0000245
A megastudy of text-based nudges encouraging patients to get vaccinated at an upcoming doctor's appointment, https://www.pnas.org/doi/10.1073/pnas.2101165118
Use caution when applying behavioural science to policy - https://www.nature.com/articles/s41562-020-00990-w
How effective is nudging? A quantitative review on the effect sizes and limits of empirical nudging studies, https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/abs/pii/S2214804318303999