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24.05.2022 |

Only a gentle nudge!?

When my daughter pushes someone I feel it’s wrong. But there is a behavioural theory that recommends a form of pushing as a means to an end. So is it okay for her to do so?

For children, pushing and prodding other people is a form of communication. The reasons for fisticuffs of this sort can vary; pushing can be a failed attempt to make contact or the result of tiredness, hunger or small changes in daily routine. Pushing is an impulse, but among younger children the ability to control impulses still isn’t fully developed. That’s why kids push and shove even though they know they shouldn’t. As a father I have to continually remind myself that when she pushes, my daughter is expressing a need – a need I can satisfy if I respond appropriately. But do the means justify the end? Given that she’s not acting consciously, that would be the wrong interpretation.

Politically correct pushing

But pushing’s not only an issue in child rearing. A behavioural theory that revolves around nudging – a form of pushing – made me sit up and take notice. Nudging is a method used primarily in behavioural economics to steer people’s behaviour in a certain direction. The idea is to merely “nudge” people so they make their own decision – all without commandments, prohibitions or other incentives.

How does it work in practice? Food traffic lights help you make an informed choice for a more healthy lifestyle. Automatic organ donation is a nudge that you have to deliberately decide against. A reminder from your smartwatch that you still haven’t reached your daily steps target is a nudge that’s supposed to trigger a behaviour you desire yourself.

The theory of nudging is based on the assumption that people typically don’t behave rationally. That’s why they have trouble making optimum decisions for themselves. Nudges are intended to help people make the “right” decision – in the judgement of a government or organisation – with full freedom of choice.

There’s a catch

So you could say that pushing in the form of nudging is okay as long as it’s for the right end. After all, everyone knows that it’s important to save energy or eat a healthy diet. But we often let our inertia get the best of us and don’t take action. So if nudging is about getting us to change our behaviour to do something that seems worthwhile from a rational point of view, there doesn’t seem to be anything wrong with it.

But just as I have a problem with my daughter pushing and prodding, nudging can also be problematic. Take the case of so-called dark nudges, sneaky prods designed to make people do things that aren’t in their own or society’s interests. A typical example is subscriptions that start out free but which you end up, preferably without even noticing, having to pay for. So nudging only works if it’s done transparently and if it’s easy to decide against the choice you’re being pushed towards.

Patrick Preuss actually prefers to be practical. Even so, he believes theory has a place as a source of inspiration. But each person has to decide for themself what’s right for them.