Why I'm Not For Nudging

10/10/2012 09:21 BST | Updated 07/12/2012 10:12 GMT

I was recently at University College London to hear a talk on behaviour change. "Nudging methods ... have become increasingly popular" read the blurb. "Underlying all of this, however, is the nagging question of whether it is ethical, desirable or sustainable to be nudging people in a desired direction." Indeed. "Or, is it a case of technological fudging, where we may be covering over deeper problems?". Well, yes it is, I thought.

So imagine my disappointment when I discovered that far from addressing these important questions, the only mention of fudge was when it was passed around to the easily-nudged and apparently infantilised students packed into the lecture theatre. There was no questioning of whether it is really the business of academics and policy-makers to be finding ever more 'innovative' ways of engineering a society of individuals dutifully "eating better, exercising more, or reducing our energy consumption". There was only excitement at the ingenious inventions which Professor Rogers, whose talk it was, and her many peers working in this faddish field of behavioural economics and social psychology, were coming up with to make us do these things.

Whether it was the 'fun' musical stairs or foot-shaped floor-lighting designed to lure people away from using lifts and escalators, or the 'power aware' cord designed to make people feel guilty about their use of electrical appliances in the home, nobody bothered to ask whether this sort of thing is really a good idea. Whether it was the scannable (and 'playful') smiley-face attached to your shopping trolley that gets sadder as you pile in allegedly unhealthy or excessively globe-trotting food; or the Tidy Street project in Brighton that turned the asphalt into a giant graph displaying residents' energy consumption, nobody seemed to wonder what right they had to make these sorts of interventions.

Are we really so horrendously overweight and unable to make up our own minds about how we get around that we'd rather build cities that require us to expend more effort rather than making life more convenient? Have we really given up on the notion of developing technologies that might solve the energy problem in favour of resigning to becoming slaves to petty energy-saving gimmicks? Isn't it one of the wonders of modern living that we're able to eat food from around the world all year round? The only doubt raised was around the dreaded 'boomerang effect' where people just don't do what the behaviour-changers want them to.

The 'desired behaviour' - by who exactly? - is stubbornly resisted as the object of the nudge still can't help but regard themselves as a subject. Even if it is a matter of deciding whether to have fish and chips rather than a salad, as rational and notionally free individuals we still can't help but recoil at the suggestion that we don't know what's good for us. For the truth is that for all their protestations to the contrary the nudgers are not helping us to make decisions, they are seeking to make decisions for us. They have already decided what the 'desired behaviour' must be.

The only thing that concerns the behaviour-changer is what technique or method they should employ to bring about that behaviour. The idea of personal autonomy or that we might have the capacity, or even the right, to make decisions for ourselves or run our own lives doesn't even seem to occur to them. So when I asked Rogers whether she was perhaps being a little patronising or that, for all the pettiness of the interventions, there might be something authoritarian about all this behaviour-changing and nudging, she seemed surprised. "If it works and we're able to show an impact why not?", she asked.

As she herself admitted the Tidy Street project didn't really work. Only two residents 6 months after the project had ended changed their energy consumption behaviour. But that's not why I have a problem with nudging. You might think that this miserable failure to get the desired results might lead to a questioning of the nudge-paradigm; or to the conclusion that their time could be better spent on something of use to society. But no, for Roberts it only justified the next stage in the research: to find ways of sustaining 'desired behaviours' when the behaviour-nudging researchers are not around.

It was only at the end of her talk that she held out the possibility - on behalf of students too starved of a culture of intellectual enquiry to ask the question themselves - that perhaps treating people like children is a bit 'sneaky'. She even conceded in response to my question that debate is a good thing. But I think we have very different ideas of what this means. I certainly don't mean yet another technical discussion between proponents of behaviour-change about the best way of doing it. Instead what we're badly in need of is a very public battle of ideas that lives up to the promise of that wholly misleading blurb. Which reminds me, I'll be taking part in the Battle of Ideas on Saturday 20 October and discussing Pop-up communities: here to stay? at the Barbican, London.