This long-read article was written by lower-sixth former Tom Wright, and shortlisted for the 2020 Fifth Form Transitional Research Project. . The following provides a short abstract to his full essay, which can be found at the bottom.
Estimated read time of abstract: 2 minutes
Estimated read time of essay: 14 minutes
Nudges are apparent throughout all aspects of our daily lives, acting as a hidden force influencing a significant part of how we live and make decisions. Put simply, a nudge can be viewed as a small deliberate action made to intentionally influence an individual’s decision-making process. Take for example the layout of a supermarket, depending on where items are placed in the shop changes people’s perceptions of them. People will associate the most prominent products as being ‘better’ when in reality there is no rational or logical reasoning for this. Richard Thaler, one of the founders of nudge theory, suggests that nudges should be viewed as a sat-nav; you follow them as they guide you to your destination whilst not preventing you from choosing an alternate route. If nudges follow libertarian paternalistic principles which involves guiding individuals into a decision while not compromising their freedom to choose, is a nudge just an effective marketing technique or can we view it as a form of mind-control?
To answer this question we must first understand what the key characteristics of a nudge are. A nudge must obey two principles; it must alter people’s behaviour and it must not compromise an individual’s freedom to choose. Secondly, we must analyse the extent to which the characteristics of a nudge align with the criteria of a marketing technique or that of mind-control. Marketing is defined as only ever being an offer to the customer and that this offer must be beneficial to them. Whereas mind-control can be defined by its unethical motives and manipulative nature. A nudge contains elements of both marketing and mind-control, so we must determine which classification the nudge more closely align to.
The two main lines of argument which support the view that a nudge is a form of marketing are that a nudge is only an offer because the recipient ultimately makes the decision. If viewed as mind-control then this would imply that a pre-determined decision would be forced upon the recipient, meaning the action would no longer fit the definition of a nudge. Secondly, the most beneficial option to the recipient is still there, it is their responsibility to choose the option that they want most. Conversely, there are some attributes of a nudge that are shared with that of mind-control. These include its unethical motives, where weaknesses within the cognitive system are specifically exploited. However, it could be argued that it is impossible for companies not to nudge, making it less unethical. The second line of argument for a nudge being classed as mind-control is its manipulative nature, whereby the recipient is not informed of the fact that their choice is being subtly influenced by external factors. The high success rate nudges have in changing the decisions people make demonstrates the degree to which a nudge is manipulative.
Whilst there are arguments which would suggest that a nudge is a form of mind-control, on balance I believe a nudge can be viewed as a marketing technique. To continue Thaler’s analogy, the nudge is the sat-nav guiding us to a decision but we are ultimately the ones in the driving seat.
To view Tom’s full article, follow this link below.