Posted by Roger Mallett Posted on 4 June 2023

Government Nudge Units Find the “Best” Ways to Manipulate the Public

Freedom of speech means a lot to us at the OP. However, that’s been fading fast, as Daisy has documented, and as though speech restrictions aren’t bad enough, most of us have been lab rats for central planners’ behavioral experiments longer than we probably care to realize. And now there are Nudge Units.

Huge amounts of money have been poured into “nudge research,” determining the best ways to get populations to change their behaviors without passing laws or using force.

What are Nudge Units?

Let’s look at how these “Nudge Units” got started, what they’ve been used for most recently, and what they’re likely to focus on next.

The concept of “nudging” people into making better choices became popular with the book Nudge—Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, authored by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and published in 2008. Their book defines a nudge 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 fruit at eye level counts as a nudge.  Banning junk food does not.  (p.6)

(You may be interested to note that author Sunstein is married to Samantha Power, the administrator of Biden’s US Agency for International Development and previously Obama’s ambassador to the UN. Forbes listed Ms. Power as the 63rd most powerful woman in the world in 2014. Do you think she’s Nudging? ~ Daisy )

Individuals in government and industry quickly realized that the authors’ insights into the decision-making process could be used to manipulate that process in the minds of the general public, many of whom don’t have the time or mental energy for NYT bestsellers.

The British government established its first Behavioural Insights Team in 2010. It began as a seven-person team within a Cabinet Office nicknamed the “Nudge Unit” then became an independent social purpose company in 2014 before being purchased by Nesta, a larger social purpose company, in 2021.

These social purpose companies employ experts in promoting desirable behaviors. So in Britain, for example, they want to cut obesity rates in half and reduce household carbon emissions by 28% by 2030.

I don’t know how successful they’ve been in cutting obesity rates, but the Nudge Unit did prove its effectiveness early on by helping the British government collect an extra £200 million (about $248 million) in taxes in 2017. Not surprisingly, the Nudge Unit has become so popular that they have worked with governments in over 50 countries and have opened subsidiary offices in the U.S., Singapore, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, and France.

What does a Nudge look like in the States?

Within the U.S., Nudge Units have been employed by health care systems such as UPenn, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts. In a way, this isn’t surprising; American and British citizens alike are known for high obesity rates and poor overall health.

Promoting good health within the general population seems like a good government goal, and I think most of us would have found this largely uncontroversial before 2020.  We may not always have agreed with the FDA’s exact dietary advice, but most of us would have probably agreed that we, as a nation, don’t need quite so many candy bars.

However, during 2020, this changed.  Public messaging around health care became far more intense, and some of the advice didn’t make sense.  At the very simplest level, what makes people healthy?  Exercise and proper diet.  Humans have known intuitively for a long time that sunshine is good for us. More recent research has shown that it kills viruses and bacteria. So why were people being forbidden to exercise and even, in some cases, to go outside?

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