How to spot a nudge gone rogue

Dee Gill has a useful post on the topic:

Even the most popular and proven nudges sometimes fail spectacularly, prompting the targeted individuals to do exactly the opposite of what the nudgers intended. These damaging anomalies — nudges that inadvertently lead to a drop in retirement savings rates or to higher energy consumption, for example — often look very much like the successful nudges documented repeatedly in workplace and government settings worldwide. What makes these seemingly reliable tactics backfire?

A recent article in Behavioral Science & Policy teases out several triggers that can make a good nudge go bad. With examples from dozens of nudge studies, UCLA Anderson’s Job Krijnen and Craig Fox, along with University of Utah’s David Tannenbaum, explain how to recognize potential nudge catastrophes, in which programs to steer people toward specific decisions might go off the rails. The authors explain their research and that of other experts in the field.

Certain choice presentations, the researchers find, inadvertently prompt decision makers to dwell on a few specific questions: What do these people want me to choose, and why? What will others think of me if I take that choice?

These internal musings can be dangerous for choice presenters, according to the paper, titled “Choice Architecture 2.0: Behavioral Policy as an Implicit Social Interaction.” Sometimes people don’t make the choice intended by the nudge.

The researchers offer a checklist to help choice presenters identify situations likely to heighten these concerns. Recognizing the red flags and making what are often small changes in the choice presentation may keep a worthy nudge from becoming a spectacular failure.

For instance, the Dutch nudge for organ donations went rogue:

When the Netherlands wanted to increase organ donation in 2016, the country’s lower house of Parliament passed a bill changing the way citizens gave consent to donate. Rather than sign up for the program, as they had before, all citizens would be presumed donors at death unless they explicitly opted out.

The lawmakers were surprised when this worked badly.

The change the bill proposed — making the desired choice the default option — is a tried-and-true tactic used by governments, employers and marketers hoping to influence individual decisions. A nudge, such as a do-nothing option when every other possibility requires action, makes it easier for individuals to make decisions that align with their goals and preferences. Several European countries have nudged their way to stellar organ donation rates by assuming consent unless otherwise stated.

The Dutch, however, rebelled. With the new law to go into effect in 2020, the number of citizens refusing to donate broke records. An annual donor sign-up drive staged shortly after the bill passed registered almost six times as many signatures for non-donors as donors. The legislature eventually tamped down the backlash with some crucial adjustments to the bill. But the implications for people in the business of this sort of persuasion were troubling: A sure-fire nudge, one that had seemingly worked elsewhere, had gone rogue for the Dutch.

This happened as Dutch saw a wrong message behind the default design:

With this checklist of red flags, the Dutch organ donation nudge looks particularly risky. There was an overt change in the choice presentation, complete with a lot of press explaining the intentions of the change. The subject could hardly have been more personal and, as such, was likely to be intensely important to many. Many people apparently did not trust the government to recommend the best decision for them.

The 2.0 researchers do not focus on how the Dutch, or any nudger, can fix the potential problems their prescribed audits find. The different circumstances of each project will determine the specific actions needed. The Dutch got appeasement in part by allowing individuals to put the decision to donate or not onto their surviving relatives. Time will tell if the Dutch nudge encountered only a temporary backlash and, with the adjustment, will become successful.

An audit for social sensemaking can give choice architects a heads up that a project needs more thought — or perhaps a really good pilot test — before a potentially regrettable nudge is unleashed.

Nudge 2.0 is a nice name…

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One Response to “How to spot a nudge gone rogue”

  1. Links for 24th January, 2019 – economics for everybody Says:

    […] Nudges gone rogue, via Mostly Economics. […]

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