Nudge Theory Falsified
The effectiveness of a popular technique for manipulating
human behavior is effectively zero, a re-analysis shows
A theory has backfired. The popular book Nudge was supposed to help world leaders manipulate the populace into preferred behavior. Instead, it nudged the leaders to fall for a kludge.
The book, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness was authored by University of Chicago economist and Nobel Laureate Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein in 2008. Nobel Laureate? Harvard Law Professor? Who could doubt their wisdom? What readers didn’t know was that the Nudge was fudged. It has now been judged to be a kludge—another fad for the trash heap.
And yet it fooled the world’s leading experts for 14 years. Why is that?
Setup for a Great Fall
Nudge was just the kind of book that elitists in academia fall in love with, accepting its premises and examples without sufficient critical thinking. Here was a way to get people to do what elitists wanted without having to use logic or torture. Leaders and influencers could simply “nudge” peons quietly behind the scenes into their utopian visions of “health, wealth and happiness.” The populace would behave, and the leaders would be happy. Utopia could come without firing a shot.
Never mind that the whole Nudge idea is elitist, treating fellow human beings like cattle to be herded. Maybe that’s why the elitists liked it so much. Global leaders got on the bandwagon and started herding their citizens with The Nudge. At The Conversation today (July 29), Magda Osman writes,
Investment in it is huge. Researchers, governments, as well as organisations such as the World health Organisation use nudges as a standard method for behavioural change. So, an enormous burden has been placed on the shoulders of nudgers. This may also have resulted in the serious publication bias, because so many were invested in showing it to work.
Osman, the principal research associate in Basic and Applied Decision Making in the Cambridge Judge Business School, has long been a nudge critic. In March 2022, with colleague David Trafimow of New Mexico State University, she published a paper in Basic and Applied Social Psychology titled, “Barriers to Converting Applied Social Psychology to Bettering the Human Condition.” They were responding to a 2021 paper by Mertens et al. that appeared to offer statistical support from 212 studies for the efficacy of The Nudge.
At the end of last year (2021), there was lots of excitement about the first comprehensive analysis of past research on techniques designed to change people’s behaviour (known as “nudging”), confidently showing that they work. This was great news for researchers, but also for governments across the world who have invested in “nudge units” that use such methods.
Nothing to Salvage from the Nudge Sludge
Trafimow and Osman just got the last laugh. A new study in PNAS measured the effectiveness of nudging with better statistics that preclude confirmation bias. The result? Nudging has zero effectiveness.
Many researchers also started becoming increasingly suspicious about the reported effect size of the 2021 study. Some called for the paper to be retracted after finding out the data analysed appeared to include studies that had used faked data.
And now a new study, published in PNAS, has re-examined the estimated impact of publication bias in the 2021 study. The authors of the new paper used their own statistical methods and assessed the severity of publication bias as well as its impact on the actual effect size. They showed that the original effect size of all 212 studies wasn’t actually moderate – it was zero.
The Nudge won’t make people budge. In the short PNAS paper by Maier et al. (19 July 2022), the four authors found significant publication bias in the earlier Mertens paper from 2021. Acknowledging that “Thaler and Sunstein’s ‘nudge’ has spawned a revolution in behavioral science research,” they proceed to pull the rug out from under it. They conclude, “no evidence remains that nudges are effective as tools for behaviour change.”
The time has come to wipe the smudge of Nudge off the table of “social science” (see 13 April 2022, “Social Sciences Flunk Science Test”).
This is a huge setback for what Osman charitably calls “nudge science” (which is pseudoscience if anything). Surprisingly, Osman tries to rescue a tidbit of value from it to cheer up forlorn nudgers who might begrudge her judgment. She says,
That said, efforts to use behavioural interventions need not be abandoned. A better way forward would be to focus on building an evidence base showing which combinations of nudges and other approaches work together.
How can that be? The last time we checked algebra, x + 0 = x. The value of x does not grow by adding nothing to it. Osman claims to have demonstrated that “nudging methods together with changes in taxation and subsidies have a stronger effect on sustainable consumption than either being implemented alone.” That sounds awfully difficult to prove, and she knows better. She says,
This takes the burden off nudge being solely responsible for behavioural change, especially since alone it doesn’t do much. [Yes, zero is not much.] In fact, how could it? Given how complex human behaviour is, how could one single approach ever hope to change it? There’s not a single example of this being successfully done in history, at least not without impinging on human rights.
That’s the point. The Nudge was always an elitist substitute for impinging on human rights (e.g., taxation, force, torture) to get behavioral change. With this collapse of The Nudge, it is surprising to hear Osman end by saying, “if we are honest about the possibility of failure, we can use it to learn what to do better.”
Spoken like a soft-core elitist. Dr Osman, show us the honesty first. Show us how x + 0 can > x. Are you alleging that value “emerges” by evolution’s Stuff Happens Law? Is it like a virtual particle emerging from the void of the imaginary energy field of scientific materialism? Is it like Dark Matter? Does the Nudge emerge from Science Fudge?
As we stated in our article, “How to Nudge an Elitist” (11 June 2017), nudging is an equal opportunity “behavioral science” and science is everyman’s right. This means that if nudged, we can nudge back. We gave examples of how to do it. The difference is that our methods are not manipulative, like the subversive tricks of Sunstein-Thaler elitist nudgers. Our methods respectfully appeal to the rational minds of our fellow human beings.
Note: In that article, we acknowledged the benefits of interventions for those who might be incapable of rational thought and behavior at a stage in their lives, such as infants, seniors suffering from dementia, and addicts. Such cases are examples of “tough love” that keep the priority on the value of the person, not the wishes of oneself, government, or consensus.
If you are a recovering academic nudger reading this, we respectfully suggest you humble yourself, get treatment for your Yoda Complex, and come down from your imaginary exalted plane. Face your fellow human beings at eyeball level. Consider yourself no more valuable than the farmers and truckers, who make your own life possible by bringing you food and supplies. Then, use our Four-Step Program to learn a better way to influence the ones that you still believe need your influence. The acronym is, “Get REAL.”
R is for Reason. Treat your fellow citizens as rational human beings. Stop thinking that non-scientists are somehow less valuable than you are. Realize that some of them, like Will Rogers or Mark Twain, might have a lot more common sense than a scientist does. Get treatment for chronic Scientism (11 July 2022).
E is for Evidence. Present good evidence for your position with integrity, being “honest about the possibility of failure” as Osman said. Be honest about the tendency we all have for confirmation bias. Show knowledge of opposing evidence.
A is for Argumentation. Good argumentation is an art that combines the other parts of REAL to make a persuasive case. This is different than Sophistry, which tries to win with rhetorical trickery. Argumentation requires knowledge and skill. It not only makes its case, but responds to the best arguments of the opponent: it faces the armed Goliath, not the Straw Man. Much of what passes for argumentation in academia completely ignores the evidences and arguments from opponents of the “scientific consensus.”
L is for Logic. No amount of evidence can overcome defects in logic. An evolutionist can show off reams of alleged evidence for brain evolution, but it’s all for naught if the argument is self-refuting; a brain from chance has no credibility. C.S. Lewis explained that scientific thought cannot overcome deficiencies in logic. The proper distinction, he said, is between logical thought and non-logical thought.
The Nudge has fallen. Long live the REAL human.