Alex Massie

A Question for the Nudgers

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As we know, Team Dave are fans of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's Nudge. The authors advocate something called "libertarian paternalism". Steve Hilton, Cameron's style guru, is especially enthusiastic about using insights gleaned from behavioural economics to advance "progressive Conservatism". Here's one example he cites in a recent strategy memo:

A few years ago, the authorities in Montana managed to cut binge drinking amongst students - something that the Labour Government has tried and failed to do over the past decade. How? They simply put up advertising that stated: ‘80% of Montana college students drink fewer than four beers per week’. This led to an immediate fall in binge drinking because of the power of social norms. As various academic studies have shown, people typically like to feel like they are part of the norm - so as soon as these students were told that binge drinking was abnormal, they changed their behaviour.

I don't know if this is actually true or not (a quick search hasn't helped much). But my question for the Cameroons is this: does it matter? That is, if you can achieve a reduction in student drinking simply by claiming that "80% of Montana college students drink fewer than four beers a week", how much does it matter whether this statement is true or not?

In other words, while there may be times when "nudging" might be useful*, it's also easy to see how nudging could easily become just a polite word for manipulation.

More on this in due course.

*Thaler and Sunstein's work on savings accounts is a very good example that could be very interesting were we to, for example, begin the long, difficult and expensive process of moving to an insurance-based health system. Oh, hang on...

Written byAlex Massie

Alex Massie is Scotland Editor of The Spectator. He also writes a column for The Times and is a regular contributor to the Scottish Daily Mail, The Scotsman and other publications.

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