The success of "Nudge" is fundamentally WEIRD

Updated: 6 days ago

Tim Harford’s article in the FT titled “What Nudge Got Wrong” covers a recent paper by two big names in behavioural economics Nick Chater and George Loewenstein on how focusing on the individual-level solutions has led behavioural public policy astray. There is much more to comment on both Harford's article and the paper by Chater and Loewenstein, but I want to focus on why the WEIRDness of behavioural science is the implicit, underlying factor that seems to be missing from the discussion. It's no coincidence that "nudge" became a success even if it supposedly got something wrong - in fact, what it got wrong is exactly why it did.

First things first - what's this about?

Here’s the abstract of the paper so that we're on the same line:

Many behavioral scientists propose and test interventions that attack policy problems by seeking to change individual behavior (adopting an “i-frame”) rather than the system in which they operate (an “s-frame”). Such i-frame interventions, which typically have small or null effects, reduce support from more effective systemic actions (such as regulation and taxation). For this reason, researchers advocating i-frame solutions may have unwittingly helped promote the interests of corporations who oppose systemic change. Behavioral scientists focused on the i-frame should consider the secondary effects of their research on s-level policies, and use their skills to develop and implement value-creating system-level change.

Chater and Loewenstein start their paper by noting that “an influential line of thinking in behavioral science is that many of society’s most pressing problems can be addressed cheaply and effectively at the level of the individual, without modifying the system in which individuals operate” and that this has led many behavioral scientists to frame policy problems in individual terms while ignoring the system.

They further note that:

“The starting point is the thought that many of societies woes stem from individual-level human failings, including excessive self-interest, present bias, diffusion of responsibility, information avoidance and confirmation bias. Unlike traditional policies, i-frame interventions don’t fundamentally change the rules of the game, but make often subtle adjustments that promise to help cognitively frail individuals play the game better.”

Along with many other insights, they acknowledge how i-frame interventions have often yielded disappointingly small or even null results which, when you switch to an s-frame of looking at the whole system the individuals are operating in becomes understandable.

The shoulders of individuals

In his article, Harford makes a connection between the ideology of nudge and a 1971 US advertising campaign called “Crying Indian” which also placed the responsibility on individual citizens and consumers:

This powerful TV commercial depicts a Native American man paddling down a river that is increasingly laden with trash. “Some people have a deep, abiding respect for the natural beauty that was once this country,” says a voiceover. “And some people don’t. People start pollution. People can stop it.” The Native American man turns to the camera, a single tear rolling down his cheek. But the message was not what it seemed (and not just because the actor’s parents were in fact Italian): it was funded by some of the leading companies in food and drink packaging.

In their article, Chater and Loewenstein note that behavioural scientists have a habit of seeing problems in the same way: people don’t save enough for retirement because they are impatient, and greenhouse gases are emitted because it’s tedious to switch to a greener electricity tariff.

In short, the promise of “nudge” has always been behavioural science is the knight in a shining armor that rides in to save the fallible, flawed individual make poor choices. Chater and Loewenstein themselves lament "unwitting alignment of interests between corporations and behavioral scientists" which has focused on placing the responsibility for problems on the shoulders of individuals instead of society (see picture for the pattern described in the paper).

Chater & Loewenstein 2022, p. 9 of preprint (click to enlarge)

One area where this focus on individual responsibility is most clearly evident is sustainability - both from the perspective of academic research and applied behaviour change practice.

Despite the fact that specialising in sustainability behaviour change is currently very lucrative for practitioners, I've personally never found it an area I can wholeheartedly throw myself into - not because I don't care about the climate and future, but because I have long thought that the excessive focus on individual behaviour change is like fiddling while Rome (or Earth) burns.

For me, it's hard to muster enthusiasm for how we are all going to save the planet by recycling bottles and using less water to shower, when our individual contributions are vastly eclipsed by large corporations (usually based in North America). The responsibility for keeping large companies in check belongs to governments and however much we opt for greener products, there is only so much our actions do - at least if you compare their collective power to what power governments could exert.

Source: Schendler, A. (2021) "The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability", Standford Sustainability Innovation Review

A great example of this is the concept of carbon footprint which is possibly one of the greatest PR shams in history. In his article "The Complicity of Corporate Sustainability" Auden Schendler tells the same story of the 1971 advertising campaign and reveals that the now ubiquitous carbon footprint calculator originally dates back to PR specialists Ogilvy & Mather hired by BP to help shift the responsibility and guilt for the environment on individuals. Two decades after the campaign, carbon footprint calculators are everywhere and a part of the way we frame now sustainability.

Behavioural science is weirdly WEIRD

So why did "nudge" become so successful, if it supposedly got things wrong? It was in the right place at the right time - it's no coincidence that the two countries that were have been at the forefront of (applied) behavioural science are the UK and the US. Both countries' cultural orientation is individualistic, with the US as an extreme outlier on a global scale. Individual choice is hugely important for American culture — it’s considered an important right, almost above everything else.

As uncomfortable as it might be to consider, science is influenced by the scientist’s cultural background and the context they are doing research in: the topic of study, the assumptions/premises, the choice of methods (epistemology/ontology) and of course the interpretation and generalisability assumptions. Judgment and decision making, the field that produces much of what we call behavioural economics research, is a discipline almost entirely spearheaded by white, (upper) middle class American and some Israeli/Dutch/British scientists - in fact, Chater (British) and Loewenstein (American) themselves illustrate this cultural bias perfectly. It would have been more radical for two researchers from these backgrounds to not take it for granted that responsibility always ultimately lies on the shoulders of individuals.

From The Guardian, 4 May 2022

I was reminded by this when I read about the advice for British people suffering from the cost of living crisis in the UK:

  • the minister overseeing food and farming suggested that people should buy value ranges in the supermarket to “actually contain and manage their household budget”

  • energy company E.ON Next sent branded socks to customers to keep them warm

  • the CEO of another energy company, Utilita, told people should wear a jumper to keep heating bills down

  • a third energy company also told their customers to keep their heating bills low by “having a cuddle with your pets”, eating “hearty bowls of porridge”, “doing a few star jumps” and drinking water instead of alcohol

There are, of course, numerous examples in the same vein from policy makers in the UK and the US because they reflect their countries cultural orientation towards the right and responsibilities of the individual. They also reflect the cultural narratives in these countries so it was easy to see how research predominantly originating in the ultra-individualist US found a welcoming home in the Conservative government steered by David Cameron back in 2010.

Nudge has a cultural fit with individualist societies

Nudge has always appealed to conservative policymakers because it shifts the burden of responsibility to individuals and away from the corporates who lobby and support them. It is almost always politically unwise to approach problems like sustainability through legislation and regulation - on the other hand, launching campaigns focusing on individual behaviour change looks like you're doing something to the electorate and fits into the cultural narrative so neatly it doesn't occur to anyone to challenge it.

The same applies to other "popular" behaviour change areas like health and specifically obesity: it's much easier to guilt-trip individual citizens to take responsibility for their health issues than it is to tackle systemic problems that create the fertile ground for them - those would take longer than an electoral cycle. This is particularly the case in countries with a two-party system where there's always an element of adversarial politics and the short-termism that comes with it.

As Chater and Loewenstein note, this focus on the narrative of individual behaviour and responsibility has understandably also been intoxicatingly appealing to the corporate world:

The food industry has worked hard to encourage academics to focus on i-frame solutions to the obesity crisis, including attempts to deflect concern away from food and discredit academics with opposing views. This involves devoting considerable resources toward convincing consumers and legislators that obesity is a matter of individual choice and responsibility, so that the i-frame both captures both the source of the problem and any possible solutions. Brownell and Warner (2009) identify the central plank of the industry’s strategy for influencing public and policy maker-opinion as: “Focus on personal responsibility as the cause of the nation’s unhealthy diet,” taking the food system as a given.

One particular area where you can see this is the focus on habits because habitual consumption is, of course, the Holy Grail for any company.

Why this matters

Chater and Loewenstein rightly note that our near-obsessive focus on individual-level causes has meant that resources such as researcher time and journal pages have been dedicated to searching for solutions that may be fundamentally misguided or ineffective - ultimately stopping us from reflecting more deeply and holistically on the complex origins of these societal problems.

It also poses risks for those engaged in the application of behavioural science as practitioners. From an ethical perspective, we should ask ourselves if we want to take part in this narrative and regularly challenge our clients both in the public and private sector whether the problem that we are asked to solve is truly down to the individual or whether a more systemic approach is needed (as Ruth Schmidt has eloquently advocated).

From a practical perspective, we also need to consider whether the problem is truly psychological (see my summary of Meder, Fleischhut & Osman, 2018) because if it isn't, our chances of successful interventions are limited which will eventually risk our own reputations as well as that of our field and profession.

As a final note, I warmly recommend everyone to take some time this week to read the Chater and Loewenstein paper as it includes lots of insightful examples!


Post script:

When I posted this article on LinkedIn, some people questioned whether the ethnicity of a scientist or the research population matters when it comes to research topics like cognition. That conversation stuck with me, so I wrote something about how representative psychology really is and what the consequences might be. Read the follow-up here:

Why representativeness and inclusivity in psychology matter


If the FT article is behind a paywall, you can read a PDF version here - I saved it for later referencing because I could only read it once myself:

What nudge theory got wrong _ Financial Times
Download PDF • 64KB

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