Why debating the ethics of applying behavioural science is a red herring

Why the debate on Nudge is a red herring (tapped out on my phone during the #LSEnudge debate):

1. We’ve previously designed services thinking everyone is an in-control homo economicus. There’s loads of recent evidence on what we’re like. Why not use it?

2. “They can’t solve everything” is not a reason to not use ‘nudges’. If policy-makers commission ‘nudges’ & don’t deal with the food industry, that’s a problem with policy making, not with decision science.

3. If you want a policy/political narrative for it, work up the idea that we can do politics better if we better understand what we’re like as a species.

4. Behaviour is context-dependent, whether you/others are trying to influence it of not. So it shouldn’t be controversial to try to influence it.

5. There are ethical issues. Why not codify them? For example, behavioural practitioners and their commissioners should only use social norm messages that are true (so you don’t say 95% pay their tax on time if it’s really 80%).

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2 thoughts on “Why debating the ethics of applying behavioural science is a red herring

  1. Interesting, especially your fifth point. I think we ought to go a bit further and only ‘nudge’ people towards achieving goals they actually have, not towards goals we think they *ought to* have.

    Peter-Paul Verbeek at the University of Twente describes a very usable framework for juding the ethical viability of persuasive interventions: Verbeek, P. P. (2006). Persuasive Technology and Moral Responsibility Toward an ethical framework for persuasive technologies. Persuasive, 6, 1-15. Available here: http://www.utwente.nl/gw/wijsb/organization/verbeek/verbeek_persuasive06.pdf

    • Thanks for your comment. To start with, we should all be able to agree (I think!) that the distinction you make is real. And further to that, that there is a proper debate to be had about ethics. One analogy I would draw is with the Market Research Industry: one of the signs it had ‘grown up’ was that it developed a Code of Conduct. I would like the ‘Decision Science’ sector to work towards a similar agreement, though I recognise that, right now, there are relatively few practitioners, so I may be jumping the gun.

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