Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethics in the Cultural and Educational Industries

Academic journal article Journal of Information Ethics

Ethics in the Cultural and Educational Industries

Article excerpt

The Politics of Nudging

The year 2008 may very well have been the year of the nudge, to judge from the title of a controversial book about the seemingly esoteric topic of behavioral economics.i Synthesizing results from decades of research in psychology, sociology, and economics, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein asserted that individuals, for a variety of reasons, do not necessarily make decisions that are in their best interests when it comes to matters of health, wealth, and happiness. As a result, those individuals should be "nudged" by "choice architects" into making better decisions. Specifically, choice architects should employ a variety of subtle techniques-small wording changes on documents, tax-code deductions, opt-out formulas instead of opt-in formulas, and so on-"to try to influence people's behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better." Thaler and Sunstein called their approach "libertarian paternalism"-a label that suggested a level of coercion that some people found uncomfortable, given the connotations of each of those terms. But let us look at their argument closely and apply it to public libraries-once bastions of meaningful learning, but now slip-sliding into gaudy entertainment venues and social-gathering places.

Thaler and Sunstein's foundational insight was that there is no such thing as "neutral design" because any policy or procedure influences people's behaviors in one way or another, often without their knowing it. Two examples clarify their point. We all know that cellphones have numerous features with numerous options for each feature, but because a single option is set as the default for each feature, the vast majority of cellphone owners use that pre-determined default. We succumb to inertia. We also know that eating healthful foods is a good thing, but the arrangement of food on the shelves of a cafeteria-carrots and broccoli on a below-eye level shelf, for example, or desserts at the beginning of the line-means that we will load up on desserts and avoid vegetables. We succumb to convenience.

Mundane as they may appear, the two above situations were placed before us-staged, as it were-by a "choice architect," defined as anyone who "has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions." In other words, choices about organizational context have already been made by someone else before any given person makes an individual decision about what he or she wants, does, or thinks. Thus choice architects are crucial, and they impact our lives more than we know or suspect: the physician describing alternative treatments to patients; parents discussing educational options with their children; and employers paying their employees on a weekly, bi-weekly, or monthly basis.

Not surprisingly, governments and quasi-governmental entities are strong proponents of nudging. In the United States and Canada, many utilities have installed so-called "smart meters" in homes and workplaces, offering reduced rates for energy consumption during off-peak evening hours and weekends, but high rates for consumption during on-peak weekday morning and afternoon hours. In Great Britain, officials mandated the creation of a Behavioral Insights Team in 20i0, aka the nudge unit.2 In three short years, the unit implemented measures that increased people's willingness to donate organs, pay court fines, give to charities, and participate in retirementsavings plans, to name but a few successes. Interest in the program grew exponentially, with all British civil servants being trained in behavioral economics and "a new team in the White House planning to run policy trials inspired in part by Britain's program."

It's imperative to note that no one is being forced to consume energy sources only during off-peak hours, nor to be more generous with regard to charities; rather, individuals are offered incentives-lower utility rates and larger tax deductions, for instance-to act in a manner that not only benefits them, but also society at large, which leads us back to public libraries. …

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