The UK government’s initial response to COVID-19 of reliance solely on a combination of nudge theory and assumed herd immunity, combined with a more recent criticism of some of the people and work underlying the policy,(1) got me thinking about the different responses to nudge theory and behavioral economics I’ve encountered.
The first memorable introduction to behavioral economics I encountered was in grad school, although I think I’d run across a few papers before that point. For me at that point, Kahneman and Tsversky’s work stood out, particularly on prospect theory and anchoring. We also read some of Sunstein and Thaler’s work (from my memory, primarily their AER piece on libertarian paternalism), and while the concept of nudging was interesting, it seemed best suited to decisions with high information costs, where the decision makers had less knowledge than the decision offerers. After a bit of discussion, we generally agreed that while there was valuable merit to the idea, applying it to policy would obviously require good information provision and an appropriate policy environment. Decision makers would have to trust the incentives and intent of the decision offerer. And studies finding any evidence of behavior change via nudge in the laboratory had next to no external validity. In short, not the sort of thing you hang your hat on as a first response to a pandemic, especially when you don’t also apply tried-and-tested methods of pandemic control (like quarantines, extensive testing, contact tracing, etc…).
The attempted nudges sought to affect ingrained and perhaps even somewhat involuntary behaviors: increased hand washing, coughing into elbows, not touching one’s face, no more handshakes, and the like. In the past, successful interventions to change deeply ingrained patterns of behavior have typically involved much more concentrated campaigns. For example, doing away with foot binding in China involved a combination of legal bans, public campaigns, and eventually official stigmatization. Similarly, increasing awareness of fly-based illness involved a combination of public education and very vivid illustrations. These efforts were quite different from the very muted ‘please wash your hands for once in your life’ and ‘don’t touch your face or cough into your hand’ efforts initially put out in response to the COVID-19 threat.(2)
Up until this year, I frequently have had MSc students who run across nudge theory for the first time in one of their required classes.(3) When it comes time to discuss thesis topics, every other student from a certain couple of programs who hasn’t done sufficient thinking or research to come up with a topic says something along the lines of: ‘So I find nudge theory interesting…’ The obviously important details of policy topic, experimental design, and experimental funding are all left unconsidered.(4) This obsession with nudge theory seems to be a particularly British thing, but it’s an interest shared by students on our programs from all over the world.
This ‘have a hammer, must hit everything’ approach to tools and policy seems to be an especially British approach as well. In the US, you can generally count on partisan bickering to cause stasis. In the UK, you get something where a simplistic understanding of a tool gets applied in an overly broad manner, perhaps best exemplified by multiple Conservative governments’ attempts to treat monopolistically competitive markets as perfectly competitive, leading to a regulatory outcome that is the worst of all possible worlds. In the case of nudge theory, this is essentially taking a body of research that applies to topics with high information barriers and low decision spillovers (that is, the choice you make will affect you, but is unlikely to affect your neighbor), and applying it to an issue with low information barriers (unless you’re dealing with Trump supporters and/or people who only get their news from Fox or the Express/Mirror/Sun) with high decision spillovers (the social choices you make are likely to affect your neighbor and your neighbor’s neighbor), and then entirely ignoring what has been shown to work in other countries and other public-health crises. In the UK case, there’s also a bit of gas-lighting and buck passing by the Tories.
When all of this plays out, I wouldn’t be surprised to see behavioral economics as a field take a bit of a hit, at least within the UK. This would be a shame, as there are a lot of good and useful ideas there, particularly for improving policy. But the media coverage I’ve seen (beyond the Guardian), has largely demonized the field as a whole, rather than acknowledging that overly broad application of nudge theory, just one strand of inquiry in the broader subject, with too little appreciation of the underlying research-design limitations, led to the disastrously inefficient early response to COVID-19 in the UK.
Ultimately, my wondering is brought back to future students – will they share the same enthusiasm for nudge theory that they have ever since I arrived at UCL, or will they move on?
(1) There’s even an oped criticizing all of the behavioral sciences on the basis of a bad application of nudge theory. The author is an Oxford PPE grad who apparently didn’t learn much about a single one of the disciplines he studied. Following his logic, we should also throw out biomedical sciences because the error bounds are larger than those in physics.
(2) My informal several-year survey of male toilet hand-washing activities places non-washing at 30-35% of all male toilet users.
(3) I’m pretty sure that the only reason I avoided this happening this year is the fact that I was on sabbatical for the first term. As a result, I didn’t have any personal tutees going through the usual MSc sequence. I also have not had any Belt & Road Initiative conversations with students.
(4) And after a bit of discussion, I generally nudge them toward a completely different topic.