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The Ethics of Influence

By Cass Sunstein

Cambridge University Press, 224 pages, $33.95

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Companies have been nudging prospects for years, subtly and not-so-subtly, with their marketing efforts. But in recent years governments, armed with the latest insights of behavioural sciences, have also set up so-called "nudge units" to promote worthwhile ends.

Of course, what the government considers worthwhile may not be what the citizenry considers beneficial – or a proper activity for government. Efforts to push better eating behaviours, reduce energy consumption and cut down on smoking or texting-and-driving have mostly been accepted. But other activities might be frowned upon, particularly if we look at how authoritarian countries nudge-control their people.

While most of the concerns with this activity have been about effectiveness, Cass Sunstein, a professor at Harvard University and leading light in the nudge movement, focuses in his recent book on the ethical ramifications.

He notes that nudges and arranging choices for people – choice architecture, as it is known – to increase the likelihood of the favoured option are a way of life, given social norms and modern communications. But when politicians are involved, acting through government, they need to be careful.

"We can object to particular nudges and particular goals of particular choice architects but not to nudging in general," he writes in The Ethics of Influence.

Mr. Sunstein says the ethical considerations can revolve around whether the nudges promote or undermine people's welfare, autonomy, dignity and self-government. In ordinary life, we have a duty to warn people who are at serious risk and the same applies to government. If it fails to nudge, it could be not living up to its ethical obligation. Disclosure of information about the nutritional content of foods promotes both welfare and autonomy. Automatic voter registration promotes self-government while the various laws some American states have employed to nudge people not to vote limit self-government.

Nudges are a form of manipulation; indeed, he talks of 50 shades of manipulation to show just how broad and complicated the matter can be. He argues that an action does not count as manipulative merely because it is an effort to influence another person's behaviour. Romantic partners will sometimes manipulate each other and that can be fine, even fun.

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"A calorie label and an energy efficiency label are classic nudges, but they are not ordinarily counted as forms of manipulation. So long as a private or public institution is informing people, or 'just providing the facts,' it is hard to complain of manipulation. There is also a large difference between persuading people and manipulating them," he writes.

The extreme are governments that have attempted to turn their citizens into puppets. Nobody wants to be a puppet on a string and it is particularly bad, he notes, to be a puppet of government. Manipulation, he says in trying to define the concept, occurs to the extent an act does not sufficiently engage or appeal to people's capacity for reflection and deliberation.

In a U.S. survey he conducted, people essentially viewed nudges through that prism and, of course, whether or not the specific nudge seemed towards a good end.

He found substantial support for mandatory calorie labels at chain restaurants, mandatory graphic warnings on cigarette packages and automatic enrolment in savings plans, subject to opt-out provisions.

He even found support for what he considered controversial nudges such as listing the name of incumbent politicians first on the ballot; changing a woman's name automatically to her husband's upon marriage, with an opt-out provision; and federal labelling of products from companies that have repeatedly violated labour laws.

But other nudges were rejected, for two main reasons. First, people don't want nudges that appear to have illegitimate goals, such as favouring a particular religion or political party (even by adherents of that religion or party). So it's crucial what governments are nudging people toward.

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Secondly, people oppose nudges that are inconsistent with the interest or values of most of the choosers. While they accepted an automatic name change for women, they rejected it for men, for example, as that seems to contradict societal values.

"When people are deciding whether to favour default rules, the size of the group of disadvantaged people undoubtedly matters. If a default rule harms a majority, it is unlikely to have much appeal. If the disadvantaged group is large (but not a majority) people might reject a default rule and favour active choosing instead," he notes.

He also drew out a third principle that seemed favoured: Before certain losses can occur, people must affirmatively express their wishes. An example is organ donation where respondents supported a requirement that when somebody is obtaining a driver's licence they should indicate whether they want to donate upon death – active choosing. But a default rule in favour of organ donations unless individuals opt out was not acceptable as affirmative consent is missing.

This is a complex area and the book is appropriately complex, weaving through a myriad of ethical issues, at times a work of philosophy and at other times a tentative guide – a nudge in preferred directions – for government officialdom.


Best-selling author Tim Ferriss is back with a hefty, eclectic collection of tips to build habits for personal and work success, Tools of Titans (Houghton Mifflin Harcourt, 673 pages, $40).

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Consultant Judith Glaser alerts you to techniques that will build greater trust through Conversational Intelligence (Bibliomotion, 232 pages, $36).

In What Customers Crave (Amacom, 256 pages, $25), consultant Nicholas Webb boils marketing down to two questions you need to ask: What do they love and what do they hate?

Harvey Schachter is a Kingston, Ont.-based writer specializing in management issues. He writes Monday Morning Manager and management book reviews for the print edition of Report on Business and an online column, Power Points. E-mail Harvey Schachter

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