Why the Authorities Find It Easier to Nudge Us toward Their Policies; Wales' Presumed Consent Organ Donation Model Is a Prime Example of 'Nudge' Policies Which Are Gaining Greater Traction, According to a Team of Researchers Led by Professor Mark Whitehead of Aberystwyth University. Here They Outline a Phenomenon Which Is Increasingly Informing Governments Worldwide
Byline: Mark Whitehead
IN early July the passage of the Human Transplantation (Wales) Bill through the Assembly made Wales the first UK nation to adopt a presumed consent system for organ donation.
The Bill, which comes into effect in 2015, should undoubtedly be celebrated: it will lead to far more people being on the Organ Donor Register in Wales, as presumed consent systems have in other countries where they have been introduced, and it will save lives.
The historic significance of the Bill, however, lies not only in the lifesaving difference it will make, but in fact that it is the most discussed aspect of a broader shift in systems of government in Wales and the UK.
This shift is characterised by the increasing use of psychological insights about the nature of human behaviour within the design of public policy.
Commonly referred to as "nudge" policies, these new ways of governing are based on the principles of soft paternalism, or the idea that governments should use policies to make it easier for people in act in ways that support their own, and the broader public's, best interests.
Nudge policies are clearly in vogue.
In the UK, the New Labour administration became interested in the ideas of soft paternalism during the early years of Tony Blair's second term.
It has, of course, been the Coalition Government that has most eagerly sought to deploy nudging tactics.
In August 2008 David Cameron included Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's 2008 volume Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness - essentially "the bible of nudge" - on an official list of recommended summer reading for Tory MPs.
Since coming to power, the Coalition Government has established the Behavioural Insights Team - most commonly referred to as the "Nudge Unit" - in Whitehall.
It has already played a role in developing initiatives in areas as diverse as public health, fraud prevention, energy use, and charitable giving.
The impact of nudge policies are not restricted to the UK. In France, for instance, the government has been drawing on the principles of nudge to inform the development of energy policy, while examples are also apparent as far afield as Australia, Singapore and the US.
In order to appreciate the implications of these new policy developments it is important to understand the nature of a nudge.
Nudge policies are actually derived from a particular branch of economics known as behavioural economics.
Behavioural economists argue, in contrast to conventional economic theory, that human behaviour is not only based on rational contemplation, but also on a strong dose of irrational intuition.
There are, of course, many good reasons why we do not act rationally.
First of all humans tend to favour short-term gain over long-term loss. This is probably why we seem so reluctant to act on issues such as climate change despite the compelling evidence of its near future consequences.
Second, we rarely have either the available information or necessary time to make the decisions that are in our (financial) best interests. This is why people stay on unfavourable energy tariffs.
Third, people are motivated at least as much by emotion, desire, and pleasure as they are by the careful consideration of their best options. …