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‘Nudge’ penetrates deep into Whitehall

UK has de facto chief social scientist, says Richard Thaler

The US economist Richard Thaler, author of the influential book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness, is advising several UK government departments on how to influence behaviour without the need for regulation.

In an interview with Research Fortnight, Thaler explained that he spent a week this month meeting ministers across government. “I go around and talk to ministers about what their problems are and whether there are insights from behavioural science that might enable them to achieve their goals better,” he said.

Thaler also works with the Cabinet Office’s Behavioural Insights Team, a six-member unit of civil servants led by David Halpern, a former policy adviser to Tony Blair who is on secondment from his post as senior fellow at the Institute for Government. The team is known colloquially as the government’s “Nudge Unit”.

Thaler and the Nudge Unit are testing a range of interventions that persuade people to change their behaviour, using small steps and therefore avoiding statutory regulation. In one such initiative, the Treasury is testing the wording of letters that are sent out to people who have not paid their taxes. Through work with the Behavioural Insights Team, the department has found that one particular form of words yields 10 per cent more payments than others. Thaler said he could not reveal the wording as doing so would jeopardise the next phase of the project, still in testing.

The government’s patronage of nudge theory, however, has drawn the ire of experts including those in the House of Lords. A report published by a sub-committee of the House of Lords Science and Technology Committee last week called for a greater evidence base for applying nudge techniques in public policy. The sub-committee, led by Liberal Democrat peer Julia Neuberger, questioned whether nudge was an excuse not to regulate. The Lords report said: “The evidence we received indicated that the government’s preference for non-regulatory interventions has encouraged officials to exclude consideration of regulatory measures when thinking about behaviour change.”

The Lords’ warning is echoed by Theresa Marteau, director of the University of Cambridge’s Behaviour and Health Research Unit. “The concern is not so much that the government is focusing on nudging but one of the dangers of doing that is the neglect of other sometimes more potent interventions for changing behaviour, for example through regulation.”

Thaler, however, says the report is “politicised” and that the Lords have painted their support for the unit’s work as criticism. “Often I couldn’t tell who the report thought it was arguing with,” he says.

“No one ever suggested the government would limit itself to nudges and this is just a simply inaccurate characterisation of the government’s position,” he adds. “Certainly David Cameron never said that, David Halpern never said that, and you won’t find anything like that in the book itself.”

Asked what he thought of the Lords’ call for a chief social scientist, Thaler argues that Halpern is essentially already doing the job. “It’s hard to imagine that if there were such a person that you could find someone better than David [Halpern] and that his team would be much different than the behavioural insights team. The team is doing much of what this report would like them to do.”

Cary Cooper, chairman of the Academy of Social Sciences, told Research Fortnight that he admires the work of the nudge unit but that it should not be viewed as the same as a chief social scientist.

“There are some social, health and other problems which require…an input from psychologists, sociologists or geographers and you’ve got to take all that into account, this unit only looks into behavourial economics,” he says. Cooper says the academy has been calling for a chief social scientist to be appointed since Paul Wiles, the last CSS, retired in 2010. After Wiles’ departure, the position was downgraded and is jointly held by two civil servants.