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The big nudge

The government turns to science to manipulate our behavior

Issue: "GOP idea man," May 22, 2010

"I do not understand my own actions," the man wrote. "For I do not do what I want, but I do the very thing I hate." Too bad he lived in the first century a.d. If Paul really wanted to find out why he acted so "irrationally," a band of behavioral scientists would have been happy to steer him into a lab and hand him a questionnaire.

Don't we all want to know why we do what we do? What else could explain the success of books like Blink, Outliers, Freakonomics, The Wisdom of Crowds? Besides its value as fascinating fodder for dinner-table conversation, such literature gives the reader an edge on less informed fellow humans, from the perspective of countless "studies" that analyze their behavior.

But it's one thing to delve into behavioral science around the dinner table, and another to make it a matter for government policy. An essay by Andrew Ferguson in The Weekly Standard examines how the Nanny State proposes to pull on a lab coat and base its regulatory powers on science rather than fiat. Behavioral science, to be exact. The president has surrounded himself with intellectuals who believe there's no school like the behaviorist school for remaking society. Twentieth-century standards like Executive Order 12866, which required a cost-benefit analysis on each new regulation, are hopelessly out of date.

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"A great deal has been learned since that time," President Obama wrote in a memorandum shortly after taking office: "Far more is now known about regulation-not only about when it is justified, but also about what works and what does not." The memorandum ordered a review by the Office of Management and Budget to, among other tasks, "clarify the role of the behavioral sciences in formulating regulatory policy."

The report was due within 100 days. That means it's about 12 months late. Perhaps the review board took some time off to study the Procrastination Effect.

The proposed change in regulatory policy is based on studies that claim to show a pattern of "predictable irrationality," meaning humans acting in ways contrary to their best interests. They choose chocolate seven-layer cake over an apple for dessert, consistently drive over the speed limit, and fail to replace outdated attic insulation. Sometimes they even vote Republican. Since appointing jackbooted thugs to make people behave would be unpopular, regulatory policy should be based on the "nudge," an incentive strategy sometimes called "libertarian paternalism."

For example, rather than offering a 401(k), employers will be required to enroll everyone in the plan and offer an "opt out." Cigarette warnings will be larger with smaller words, and fruit will be placed in front of pie in the school cafeteria. And so on.

A policy introduced with some fanfare 15 months ago seems to be on the back burner now. Perhaps someone noticed that "libertarian paternalism" is an oxymoron, or that theoretical conclusions from university experiments don't translate to desirable behavior.

"Cognitive dissonance" was unknown to Jonathan Edwards, who saw a clear correlation between a man's mind and his will. A drunkard reaching for his next drink knows the drink will satisfy him at that moment, enough to outweigh the consequences. No social norm or product placement will sway him until his mind changes-even to admitting he's a wretched man trapped in a body of death (Romans 7:24). God places the responsibility where it belongs: on the individual.

Do we really know "what works"? What are the chances that a program of "nudging" irrational creatures into making the right choices will sooner or later eliminate the choice? New York state is now considering a bill to automatically enroll New Yorkers as organ donors, unless they officially opt out. Which is the tyrant: the government that holds citizens responsible for their actions, however irrational, or the government that assumes responsibility for its citizens, however benevolent?
If you have a question or comment for Janie Cheaney, send it to

Janie B. Cheaney
Janie B. Cheaney

Janie lives in Missouri, is a columnist for WORLD, writes novels for young adults, and is the author of the Wordsmith creative writing series. She also reviews books at Follow Janie on Twitter @jbcheaney.


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