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Margaret Wente

Margaret Wente


I’m an adult. Stop nudging me Add to ...

Editor's Note: The original print version of this column and an earlier online version incorrectly used hyperbole to suggest that University of British Columbia breastfeeding specialist Dr. Verity Livingstone is in a camp that believes bottle-feeding "borders on child abuse and should be discouraged." In fact, Dr. Livingstone not only promotes, supports and protects breastfeeding but also recommends the use of breastmilk substitutes when medically indicated. The offending sentence has been removed from this amended online version. The Globe and Mail apologizes to Dr. Livingstone for this error.

For years, the City of Toronto has been trying to get me to ride my bike to work. Armies of urban planners and health officials and environmentalists are convinced that bike commuting will make me healthier and happier and confer a wide range of social benefits, such as lessening traffic congestion and pollution. Secretly, they’re happy that the traffic is getting worse and worse, because they figure more and more people will abandon their cars and take up walking, cycling and public transit instead. If only we could be more like Amsterdam!

Planners have tried all kinds of incentives to get us to cycle more. Toronto has built dedicated bike lanes, as well as semi-dedicated lanes (a safety menace, in my view). It even invested in a money-losing bike-share program. Sadly, though, I’m no more inclined to ride a bike than ever. My reasons are pedestrian: Sweatiness, helmet hair, inability to pick up dinner and 10 kilograms of cat litter on the way home. And the weather, which is crummy half the year.

But mostly, I enjoy not having my teeth knocked out. Cycling in Toronto is so dangerous that only lunatics would do it. You can be wiped out at any moment by cars and streetcar tracks.

Only about 25 per cent of big-city cyclists are women. We have a different idea of our own best interests than the city planners do – which, I can assure you, will not deter these people in the least.

The idea that public officials have a duty to help you do what’s in your own interest has taken off with a vengeance, thanks in no small part to something known as “nudge” theory. Nudge theory, which was invented by two guys named Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is on the face of it quite benign. It recognizes that we are flawed, irrational and occasionally foolish creatures, who, left to our own devices, cannot be relied on to save for retirement, eat our vegetables or floss. The idea behind nudge theory – also known as “soft paternalism” – is to design public policies that make the right choices much easier.

Ontario’s new pension plan is a good example of nudge theory. The provincial Liberal government – the finest bunch of soft paternalists you will ever meet – decided that we aren’t saving enough for retirement. So it will help us. No one will be forced to join the new plan – that would be too coercive. Instead, people will be automatically enrolled, with an option to drop out. Because the default is to belong, most people will wind up doing the government’s idea of the right thing through sheer inertia. (Whether we need this plan at all is another matter. A lot of people think that if some folks are not very good at saving for retirement, it’s their tough luck.)

Nudge theory is the offspring of behavioural economics, which explains why people don’t always act like rational animals, and it’s hot, hot, hot. Governments all over are figuring out how to nudge us into being better people. Prof. Sunstein has advised Barack Obama’s government. Prof. Thaler has advised British Prime Minister David Cameron, who has has set up a behavioural insights team, also known as the Nudge Unit. This team has been busy figuring out how to get people to sign up for organ donation, to pay their taxes on time and to insulate their attics, among other worthy efforts. In a TED talk shortly before he took office, Mr. Cameron explained how knowledge of human behaviour was part of his vision for a “new age of government.”

Maybe you think all this is a great breakthrough in social policy-making. Or maybe you think there’s something faintly creepy about a behavioural insights team. If it’s the latter, I’m with you.

New York University professor Jeremy Waldron has just articulated some of this unease in an essay for The New York Review of Books. The most obvious problem with nudge theory, he argues, is that it divides the world into “we” and “they.”

“We” are the informed, the dispassionate, the rational ones who happen to be in charge. “We” are the people who “know better,” as Prof. Waldron puts it, and who also have the power and the knowledge to manipulate the choices that other people make – for their own good, of course. “They,” the poor schlubs, are myopic, lazy, poorly informed and poorly controlled. They need saving from themselves.

The other problem is that regulators and governments are people too. They have their own fallibilities. “We all know they are perfectly capable of screwing things up on their own, whether it’s the invasion of Iraq or the rollout of Obamacare,” Prof. Waldron says.

A third problem, one I have observed often, is that “soft paternalism” can morph pretty quickly into “soft authoritarianism,” exemplified by people who are dogmatic, self-righteous and wrong. I ran across a prime example in an e-book by Vancouver’s Bree Galbraith called The Designer Nudge. In it is an interview with Dr. Verity Livingstone, a breastfeeding specialist at the University of British Columbia. The issue is how to nudge new mothers into breastfeeding.

“If you are trying to move them along, to nudge them, you have to decide if the information has to be ‘scary’ to possibly shift them sooner than the positive bit would,” she said.

That’s the problem in a nutshell. It’s a short step from nudging people to terrorizing them and pushing them around. Many fields – especially public health – are full of people who think they have a corner on the truth. These people often bemoan the fact that the public doesn’t trust them. But the reason we don’t trust them is quite often that they are simply imposing their own preferences on the rest of us.

So stop nudging me already. I may be flawed, but I am an adult. I will not cycle in Toronto traffic. And I don’t like bullies.

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