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[Cass Sunstein, guest-blogging, April 16, 2008 at 12:26pm] Trackbacks
Social Nudges

Human beings are greatly influenced by the actual or apparent behavior of others. Consider just a few examples:

1. Federal judges on three-judge panels are much affected by the votes of their colleagues. Democratic appointees, sitting with two Republican appointees, show pretty conservative voting patterns. Republican appointees, sitting with two Democratic appointees, show pretty liberal voting patterns. Clinton appointees turn out to look a lot like Bush appointees on DRR panels. And in some areas of law, the political party of the president who appointed the two other judges on the panel is a better predictor of a judge's vote than the political party of the president who appointed that very judge (!).

2. Teenage girls who see that other teenagers are having children are far more likely to become pregnant themselves.

3. Ethnic identification is contagious. When relevant people start to identify in ethnic terms -- in clothing choices, rituals, attitudes -- "ethnification" can spread rapidly throughout a locality or a society.

4. Broadcasters have been found to mimic each other, producing otherwise inexplicable fads in radio and television.

These social nudges are best explained in two ways. First, the behavior of others conveys information about what is true or right or best. Often people lack entirely reliable information, and they base their choices on what others say or do. Second, the behavior of others imposes reputational pressure. If you want to keep people's good opinion, you might want to do what they do.

The four examples given above reflect both sets of influences. Reputational pressures are probably of special importance for (3). (For more detail, see Nudge.)

Social nudges can easily be enlisted by libertarian paternalists, who seek to alter behavior without imposing mandates of any kind. Having failed in various efforts to reduce littering on its highways, Texas adopted an inventive "Don't Mess With Texas" program, in which influential people, including Willie Nelson and players for the Dallas Cowboys, sent strong signals about appropriate behavior. The program has had large effects in reducing litter.

Or consider an intriguing recent experiment designed decrease energy use. In San Marcos, California, people were simply informed about whether they were above-average or below-average users of energy. In the following weeks, the above-average users significantly reduced their use of energy.

The less good news is that the below-average users actually increased their energy use. But a small tweak eliminated this effect. When they were given a happy emotikon, signalling social approval, the below-average users stayed well below average.

Of course there is reason to worry about government efforts in this vein. We could imagine programs that would violate neutrality requirements; consider efforts to promote certain religious practices or political convictions. And here as elsewhere, hard-line libertarians might just want government to stay out. But when government has a legitimate end, and wants to avoid a mandate, social nudges can serve as an immensely effective tool.

Frog Leg (mail):
Another example with which many here would personally identify with is the practice of many(most?) large firms which circulate monthly lists of the number of hours billed by every associate.
4.16.2008 12:37pm
DJR:
With regard to example 1, in 2/3 of the cases in the sample, the minority party judge will not be writing the opinion. My experience as a court of appeals clerk leads me to believe the author/non-author datum is the most important indicator of how the case will come out, which in turn determines the vote of the judges in most cases. Judges do not automatically dissent every time they disagree. Dissents take time, both to look at the case closely enough to determine whether to dissent and to write the dissent. Judges have limited time and rationally choose their battles. This is all to say that while the other examples may well be valid, the party who nominated a CTA judge compared to his or her co-panelists (even making the large assumption that the nominating party has a meaningful or predictable effect on the outcome of cases) is not a good example of a "social nudge".
4.16.2008 12:41pm
Zacharias (mail):
The newest fads include saying "absolutely" when you mean "yes" and "the problem is is that" when you mean "the problem is that." How can we nudge folks to speak thoughtful and proper English?
4.16.2008 12:41pm
Dan Weber (www):
Teenage girls who see that other teenagers are having children are far more likely to become pregnant themselves.

Have you corrected for the fact that the underlying social conditions may be making pregnancy more likely for all those girls?

(Your thesis seems entirely reasonable. It's just that I can easily think of a simpler explanation.)
4.16.2008 12:53pm
b.:

But when government has a legitimate end, and wants to avoid a mandate, social nudges can serve as an immensely effective tool.

Why might this not include affirmative action?
4.16.2008 12:55pm
Richard Aubrey (mail):
b. Because, IMO, AA has gone about as far as it can go, nudge-wise.

The best way to improve the power of the nudge is to manage the relevant information. Propaganda is another term for this.
4.16.2008 12:58pm
Iolo:
Yet another pernicious effect of liberal domination of academia!
4.16.2008 12:59pm
TRex (mail):
Some of the obtuse verbage fads never end, e.g. "...if you will." What if I won't? And everything is a "must read," must see," must eat." I probably have no standing to object being a Texan transplanted to Okla. Speaking of surroundings determining outcomes, my daughter, who plans to major in journalism and possibly on to law, will decide by end of month whether to attend Pepperdine or U. of Georgia Athens. I have lobbied for Pepperdine, but to her, UGA "sounds like so much fun."
Comments greatly appreciated...if you will.
4.16.2008 1:02pm
MikeM (mail):
"Social nudges" has an interesting intellectual history that Sunstein may not be aware of. After Kitty Genovese was killed in front of some 38 neighbors, none of whom called the police, two social psychologists embarked on a research program to see what might have caused this to occur. They concluded that everyone was waiting for someone (else) to take the lead. This research, both instructive and very well-written, was published in the American Scientist (Latane &Darley, Bystander Apathy, 1969, for those who have access to JSTOR; others should check Wikipedia ) showed that if others ignore emergency situations then it's more likely that subjects will also. And this research subsequently led to Philip Zimbardo's experiments on authority.
4.16.2008 1:04pm
Elliot Reed (mail):
I'm surprised you don't mention the familiar and ubiquitous examples of fashion trends and language patterns (especially the rise and fall of various slang terms).
4.16.2008 1:07pm
AK (mail):
Shorter Cass: fads are catchy.
4.16.2008 1:11pm
Ken Arromdee:
After Kitty Genovese was killed in front of some 38 neighbors, none of whom called the police,

This is linked in the Wikipedia article and casts some doubt on that:

http://www.oldkewgardens.com/ss-nytimes-3.html
4.16.2008 1:14pm
Hans Bader (mail) (www):
Judges, being lawyers, have long been surrounded by lawyers, who are overwhelmingly liberal on social and legal issues, even if they vote Republicans for economic reasons. That's why judges as a class tend to be liberal, even if they are nominally Republican.

That's why even Republican appointees to the Supreme Court are often liberal, like Harry Blackmun, John Paul Stevens, and David Souter (and Sandra Day O'Connor in her last years on the Supreme Court). The "social nudge" factor helps reinforce judges' liberalism over time (along with the lopsided advantage liberal causes have in quality of representation and number of amicus briefs, as I have noted in comments to earlier blog posts).

Lawyers are much more liberal than ordinary people. They voted overwhelmingly for Clinton in 1992, when he beat the elder Bush by only 5 or 6 percent among the general public, according to the Harvard Journal of Law and Public Policy. (Indeed, Clinton apparently bested Bush by a margin of 2-to-1 among lawyers).

And voting patterns understate their judicial liberalism, since a rich liberal may vote Republican to keep his taxes low.

This point is made in Russell G. Pearce, THE LEGAL PROFESSION AS A BLUE STATE: REFLECTIONS ON PUBLIC PHILOSOPHY, JURISPRUDENCE, AND LEGAL ETHICS, 75 Fordham L. Rev. 1339, 1339-1340 &fn. 1-3 (2006) (citing, e.g., Hans Bader, "Why Stop With Non-Judges," Op-Ed, Townhall.com, July 18, 2005, available at http://cei.org/gencon/019,04690.cfm ).

I am what passes for a conservative lawyer, even though I don't attend church, don't have a problem in principle with gay marriage (although in practice, I worry about some slippery slope arguments that might result from it), and don't want to restrict abortion in the first trimester. But even I am not really (socially) conservative.

Truly conservative lawyers and judges are an endangered species.
4.16.2008 1:19pm
JG:
I thought the Genovese case indicated that in large groups, each individual assumes another will act, which results in no one acting.

Prof. Sunstein - Is there any fear that social nudges will encourage (incentivize) individuals to over-rely upon government default positions?
4.16.2008 1:23pm
Adam J:
Prof. Sunstein- might I suggest including links in this article to the related articles that you have already posted.
4.16.2008 1:26pm
AK (mail):
Words and phrases requiring banishment:<p>"Disingenuous": Used to mean "he's wrong." The realted "a bit disingenuous" is used to convey that someone is wrong and that you're an annoying poseur.<p>"Wrongheaded": Used to mean "wrong." Throwing "-headed" on there adds nothing, but if you want to show that you're more thoughtful than the idiots who just say "wrong," it's great.<p>Beginning blog comments with "Um..."<p>Hypens/dashes setting off appositives: this is what commas are for. <p>Hyphens/dashes used to mark off mid-sentence asides: If you feel the need to digress mid-sentence, your writing is disorganized and you should revise it.<p>Call-and-response: Is it annoying? Yes. Are there more succint ways to state something? Yes. Will it ever stop? No.
4.16.2008 1:32pm
Benjamin Donkey:
Big Brother operated almost exclusively by nudging. See the Two Minute Hate.
4.16.2008 1:59pm
Adam J:
Benjamin- how exactly is being required by law to watch a film a "nudge"?
4.16.2008 2:09pm
Fub:
... In San Marcos, California, people were simply informed about whether they were above-average or below-average users of energy. In the following weeks, the above-average users significantly reduced their use of energy.

The less good news is that the below-average users actually increased their energy use. But a small tweak eliminated this effect. When they were given a happy emotikon, signalling social approval, the below-average users stayed well below average.
A longitudinal followup study, conducted with a grant from the Lake Woebegone Foundation, reported that after continued application of the "happy emotikon" technique all energy users reduced their consumption to levels significantly below the monthly average. Principal Investigator Dr. J. Mortimer Snerd repored, "Near the end of the study some frustrated utility customers erroneously concluded that disconnecting their dwelling from the electrical drop would decrease their electric bills. We are now seeking funding for a massive education campaign using even larger happy emoticons to correct this mistaken impression." Utility representatives had no comment.

A coalition of environmental activists and the Tallow Candlemakers Union has nominated Dr. Snerd for an Ig Nobel Prize for this groundbreaking research.
4.16.2008 2:17pm
Benjamin Donkey:
Was it a law? I'll have to read it again.
4.16.2008 2:17pm
Benjamin Donkey:
I don't seem to recall many actual laws in 1984.
4.16.2008 2:21pm
The River Temoc (mail):
The newest fads include saying "absolutely" when you mean "yes" and "the problem is is that" when you mean "the problem is that."

Angels and ministers of grace defend us. The heat death of the universe is surely impending.
4.16.2008 2:28pm
Crunchy Frog:

Beginning blog comments with "Um..."

Hypens/dashes setting off appositives: this is what commas are for.

Hyphens/dashes used to mark off mid-sentence asides: If you feel the need to digress mid-sentence, your writing is disorganized and you should revise it.

Umm... /snark

It's blog commentary, not a term paper. I'm guessing most of us are reading (and commenting) from work. It's a little much to assume that we should compose first drafts, edit and re-edit, until our final output looks like something other than "disorganized".
4.16.2008 2:36pm
LarryA (mail) (www):
These social nudges are best explained in two ways. First, the behavior of others conveys information about what is true or right or best. Often people lack entirely reliable information, and they base their choices on what others say or do. Second, the behavior of others imposes reputational pressure. If you want to keep people's good opinion, you might want to do what they do.
But beware. Nudges can also backfire, as any parent who has tried to nudge a teenager will attest. The behavior of others also conveys information about what is false or wrong or worst, and there are people I'm truly not interested in positively impressing. Also, clumsy nudges can harden resistance. See "New Coke."
4.16.2008 2:40pm
LarrySheldon (mail):
"Sheeple"

The precise technical term is that we are sheeple.

Do you know why the lead cow has a bell?
4.16.2008 2:51pm
Kairos:


Hyphens/dashes used to mark off mid-sentence asides: If you feel the need to digress mid-sentence, your writing is disorganized and you should revise it.



If I feel the need to digress mid-sentence--for instance, to call out poseurs prescribing not even accepted usage (as this arises from consensus and is published in numerous style guides) but personal preferences regarding an entire class of punctuation with perfectly acceptable functions--I'll damn well do so.

As writers, so long as we're careful to remember our readers' impressions for the sake of clarity and argumentative rigor, I think we're entitled to whatever license we choose to take in writing.
4.16.2008 2:59pm
musefree (www):
I agree with Prof. Sunstein's observations on the nature of decision-making and unlike some other libertarians, am generally sympathetic to the idea of incorporating some of it into public policy. At any rate, while not quite 'libertarian', it will still be a vast improvement on the pervasive (and coercive) paternalism that exists today, and possibly more palatable to the vast majority of the population (non libertarians) that *does not* want the government to completely get out of their lives.

However, the term 'libertarian paternalism' is both unattractive and somewhat misleading. Can't it be changed to 'non-coercive paternalism?'
4.16.2008 3:56pm
Mark Jones:
Okay, given that I have a fiduciary obligation to my stockholders to maintain or improve the value of the company. What does that mean, exactly, in this case? What if I sincerely believe that a principled stand, though costly in the short-term, would be a long-term win for the company?

Sure, if enough shareholders disagree they can vote me out as President or CEO. But does that mean I'm _obliged_ not to look more than six months into the future?
4.16.2008 4:52pm
Mark Jones:
Oops. Wrong thread.
4.16.2008 4:55pm
Benjamin Morris (mail) (www):
I'm reminded of a passage in one of Kurt Vonnegut's books, where an alien race has a publication that tells them if they are below average, average, or above average in various fields. As an act of war, another race sabotages the publication so that everyone believes they are below average.
4.16.2008 5:04pm
Jaypher (mail):
That the first item is noteworthy suggests the legal academy is in dire need of some sociological imagination. Wow.
4.16.2008 5:33pm
c.gray (mail):
Since nobody else has said it: "Monkey see, monkey do."
4.16.2008 5:39pm
Juan (mail):
There is a little known book about "nudges". The Tipping Point by Malcom Gladwell
4.16.2008 9:29pm
Zeno (www):

4. Broadcasters have been found to mimic each other, producing otherwise inexplicable fads in radio and television.


Listening to Sean Hannity, I heard him refer to Obama's children as "crumbcrunchers." Not knowing what to think of this word, I feared it might be coded racist language. I looked it up.
It's not race-based at all. It's apparently a word for 'little kids' that gets used heavily by pundits and politicos in and around DC. That's an inexplicable fad for yah!
4.16.2008 9:41pm
darelf:
All fads are explicable, though their generation may have been originally a sort of "inside joke". The rest is just people wanting to be in on it. They wish to be seen being cool.

Most of my linguistic fads come from 19th century theology, so I'm a bit behind the times.
4.16.2008 11:11pm
Terri W. (mail):
My grandmother's church (Catholic) in small town Upper Michigan used to print in the weekly newsletter how much families gave in collection the previous week. Damn that envelope system!
4.16.2008 11:17pm
Jeremy R. (mail):
An earlier post concerning law firm hours "shame sheets" reminded me of pro bono sponsorship rosters, the publication of which has the effect of "nudging" or shaming law firms into donating money, "buying" a table at an annual event, or otherwise purchasing tickets to a cocktail party or entering a raffle of some sort. I came across an email from one such organization that commanded private sector Board members to distribute order sheets to a summer coordinator within each member's firm and to respond to the email indicating that the form had been passed along as soon as the task was complete. Not exactly subtle. "This message will self-destruct in 6 seconds..."
4.17.2008 3:02am
A.C.:
What LarryA said. It matters a great deal who does the nudging, and to whom. There are groups in society who irritate me so much that, if they take up a thing as a fad, I will drop even if I have been doing it my whole life. It's a matter of not being one of THEM.

Teenagers can be this way about anything adults propose, but you also have to look at group membership among adults. I'm sure there are plenty of smokers who know it's bad and only keep at it because they want to annoy the kind of people who like to lecture smokers. And I know I'll never buy a Prius just because of the kind of people who were the early adopters.
4.17.2008 10:32am
Happyshooter:
Who are these tools who knuckle under?

I got nailed once on garbage day for putting my cardboard and plastic in the same red bin. One 'warning ticket' which ordered me to come BUY a second red bin. Screw them, I have never sorted since, it all goes in black plastic bags.

Same thing happened when they mailed me a reminder that we have 'voluntary' odd/even watering days. We live on the great lakes in an area which has lost half its population, there are no water issues. I now water when I care to, more than I care to.

If the government busybodies want you to do one thing, do another.
4.17.2008 10:48am
SIG357:
"But when government has a legitimate end, and wants to avoid a mandate, social nudges can serve as an immensely effective tool."





1) I like your social analysis as to how people make decisions.

2) What you are proposing sounds a lot more like "liberal paternalism" than "libertarian paternalism". At least, the paternal aspect is clear, but the libertarian aspect is eluding me.

Can you write something explaining what is libertarian about any of this?

That aside, the discussion of how people make decisions is a worthwhile one. It's just that it's getting buried by your insistence on trying to invoke libertarianism.
4.17.2008 1:04pm
SIG357:
" .. here as elsewhere, hard-line libertarians might just want government to stay out."




I wish I could say I was shocked at the suggestion that there exist "soft-line libertarians" who are cool with government managing (or nudging) people.

But increasingly the libertarian movement seems to consist of rich liberals who don't want to pay high taxes. Big-government libertarianism has arrived. Given the twists and turns of what the word has meant over the last century, I suppose that's not a total surprise.
4.17.2008 1:19pm