Nudging people towards “better” choices

  • Applying the principles of behavioural economics to public policy
  • Public officials have a welcome mat not a green light to use nudges

Nudges are “tools that involve freedom of choice but that inform people, that remind people, that warn people or that make it easy for people to go in a direction that would give health and safety and economic well-being the benefit of the doubt,” says Professor Cass Sunstein.

They include the likes of a labelling strategy for the calorific content of food or the automatic enrollment of citizens in a pension plan.

The eminent Harvard legal scholar, selected by former US President Barack Obama to head-up the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, was in University College Dublin to outline his work on how legal systems and policy interventions provide a social architecture that can help determine the choices of citizens.

“People in the United States and Europe like these things,” he says. “In fact, the percentage of enthusiasm is typically 70 percent or higher and it cuts across party lines.”

“If there is a nudge, an intervention, that is inconsistent with people’s interests or values, European’s and American’s aren’t going to like it very much and they aren’t going to like it very much if they think that the political actor has personal or selfish motivations. But otherwise, they are enthusiastic.”

According to Professor Sunstein, the approval ratings for nudges – or interventions - among citizens in Ireland is somewhere between 75 to 80 percent. Research has shown this to be the case.

This doesn’t mean that public officials have a green light from citizens for these interventions, but, as Professor Sunstein explains, they have a welcome mat. In other words, they are “essentially being asked by citizens to please help us in these ways”.

Professor Cass Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard, is the co-author of the New York Times Bestselling book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness.

His talk “New Directions in Behavioural Informed Policy was jointly hosted by the UCD College of Social Science and the UCD Geary Institute for Public Policy in conjunction with the Irish Behavioural Science and Public Policy network. He was introduced by Professor Colin Scott, principal of the UCD College of Social Sciences and UCD vice-president for equality, diversity and inclusion.

By: Dominic Martella, UCD University Relations