BEHAVIORAL SCIENCES WORKSHOP: Cass R. Sunstein (Harvard), “Do People Like Nudges?”

Event time: 
Thursday, January 21, 2016 - 5:00pm through 6:15pm
Event description: 

“Do People Like Nudges?”

Cass R. Sunstein, Robert Walmsley University Professor at Harvard University, and Director of the Program on Behavioral Economics and Public Policy at Harvard Law School


Abstract: In recent years, there has been a great deal of debate about the ethical questions associated with “nudges,” understood as approaches that steer people in certain directions while maintaining their freedom of choice. Evidence about people’s views cannot resolve the ethical questions, but in democratic societies (and nondemocratic ones as well), those views will inevitably affect what public officials are willing to do. Existing evidence, including a nationally representative survey, supports six general conclusions. First, there is widespread support for nudges of the kind that democratic societies have adopted or seriously considered in the recent past; surprisingly, that support can be found across partisan lines. While people tend to have serious objections to mandates as such, they do not have similar objections to nudges. Second, the support evaporates when people suspect the motivations of those who are engaged in nudging, and when they fear that because of inertia and inattention, citizens might end up with outcomes that are inconsistent with their interests or their values. Third, there appears to be somewhat greater support for nudges that appeal to conscious, deliberative thinking than for nudges that affect subconscious or unconscious processing, though there can be widespread approval of the latter as well (especially if they are meant to combat self-control problems). Fourth, people’s assessment of nudges in general will be greatly affected by the political valence of the particular nudges that they have in mind (or that are brought to their minds). Fifth, transparency about nudging will not, in general, reduce the effectiveness of nudges, because most nudges are already transparent, and because people will not, in general, rebel against nudges. But this last conclusion must be taken with caution in light of preliminary but suggestive evidence of potential “reactance” against certain nudges.

Cass R. Sunstein is currently a professor at Harvard, served as the administrator of the office of information and regulatory affairs in the Obama administration, has served as an informal advisor to many governments on behavioral questions, and has written many books, including Choosing not to Choose (2015).

This workshop is held jointly by the Yale departments of Political Science, Economics, Psychology, and School of Management, and sponsored by the Center for the Study of American Politics.

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