Richard H. Thaler: on vaccines, ‘nudge’ isn’t enough
Freddie Sayers challenges the Nobel prize winner and 'Nudge' inventor on the impact of his method
Despite its humble-sounding name, ‘Nudge’ may well be the most significant economic book of the the past twenty years. It has informed the thinking and policymaking of governments around the world, from David Cameron’s special ‘nudge unit’ in No. 10 to the WHO’s recently formed behavioural insight team, focusing on vaccines and masks.
Devised by Nobel Prize winner Richard H Thaler along with Cass Sunstein in their 2009 book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’, the theory aims to influence the behaviour and decision-making of groups or individuals in subtle or discreet ways that do not involve outright coercion or legislation. Through “choice architecture” governments and businesses can achieve outcomes without overtly mandating them. The pair have now published an updated version of the book, replete with their own experiences in government as well as new research.
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To its critics, nudge has become a byword for manipulation — a form of soft coercion that pushes people into making decisions they’d prefer to make for themselves. Prof Thaler rejects the word:
Why nudging isn’t enough for vaccines:
Do people resent being manipulated?
On Dominic Cummings:
Is nudging an alternative to Chinese authoritarianism?
What he doesn’t like:
There is so much to object to here that I don’t know where to start. Vaccines are still, technically, under emergency license and there may be unknown long term effects. As a result, nudging which borders on compulsion is completely unethical and so vaccine passports cross an unacceptable line. Furthermore, the balance between the risk of Covid infection and vaccination side effects is not straightforward (and the result of people making judgements on this balance can clearly be seen as uptake diminishes materially with each age bracket as you go down the years). Most critically, vaccination has limited benefits for the safety of others as you are stable to catch, and spread, the virus post-vaccination. Finally, we have been repeatedly been sold outright lies on what it will take to return our freedoms (3 weeks to flatten, vaccinate the over 50s, vaccinate the over 18s, vaccinate children). How are we to trust that vaccine passports are the endgame? On a personal basis, I’ve had two jabs but, unless extended to critical services, I am not willing to use my health status to gain access to a venue. A significant minority clearly feel the same way and the recently published Lancet paper indicates that vaccine passports actually make people less likely to be jabbed, and so this policy doesn’t even work on its own terms!
So nudging isn’t enough for vaccines – mandates are needed. Never in human history have people who force others into compliance been the good guys.
And now isn’t any different. Watch Dan Andrews in Victoria as he promises to exclude any ‘unvaccinated’ from the economy and keep them locked down as they are a ‘danger’ to society.Vile, arrogant and full of hubris – appear to be common qualities on these authoritarians who appear to always believe they alone know what is best and despise with a passion any who might venture a different opinion. Even get very hurt at the idea. Its a very dangerous and unleashes all kinds of harm on people if given free rein.
People who are considered a danger to society are locked up in some countries! They even have jails especially built for the purpose!
Do you hold the same views on the psychotically insane, those carrying bubonic plague or anthrax. Sounds like a fun place to live: the law of the jungle: hey, that’s it! Yoy live in a jungle right?
That simply isn’t true. We mandate our politicians to enact legislation which forces us to do all sorts fgs! In almost any aspect of ordinary living we have to comply with endless regulation: housing, food, driving and yes, healthcare too. Where do you live thst has no tegulations imposed on people? A remote jungle? ..even there the government imposes regulation on you even if you ignore them!
My eyes started to roll when I heard something like ‘choice architecture’…. nasty reminders of my corporate days. I turned off when this old fascist started to opine enthusiastically about vaccine mandates. I see glimpsing down the text that he is against authoritarianism and the Chinese regime. Oh the irony.
Watch to the end
As Sayers has Thalaer’s number, and the dangerous mindset the latter represents for humanity.
I must have missed that bit.
Eh? Balance? Try opening your mind: you’ll be amazed at the results!
Lesley, love your biting posting style.
3 weeks to flatten the curve is that nudge or just an outright lie?
As soon as the vulnerable are vaccinated nudge or lie.?
We are not looking at bringing in vaccine passports nudge or lie ?
You get the picture
“In this final phase of the effort to get people to be vaccinated, we need more than nudging. We need mandates… Certainly in the US, I applaud the mandates at my university, I applaud the mandates, in some cities, that you need to show proof of vaccination to participate in some activities.”
This guy is scary. Yesterday I watched a Dr Campbell Youtube (the world’s most popular covid doctor, very pro-vax, and pro Ivermectin, so in all camps). His latest was how just released studies show EVERYONE will get covid, vaxed and unvaxed, that is just how it is. Most of us Republicans have known this from the beginning, and so were natural herd immunity believers. The lockdowns and $30 Trillion squandered and given to the Billionaires, wasted, and on corruption, and all the horrors this brought to the world has been destructive, not beneficial. We all have to get covid anyway – and to say that the 18 months + lockdowns + social and financial costs meant the vaccinated will have less symptoms is worth the cost of the insane response is pure Insanity!
Here is the link to Dr Campbell yesterday saying everyone is going to get it. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=JhRb5hnTseU
The thing is – with the RNA and DNA Vaccines being given in Billions, WILE the virus rages through the vaccinated must inevitable mean more resistant mutations are selected for by evolution principals. Like giving every one low doses of antibiotic all the time will merely produce antibiotic resistant bacteria – it seems this very narrowly targeted vaccine system Must just select for more virulent/resistant strains.
This is such unknown waters, that we sail into it blindly like we have is not so good. With such conviction as this guy above has, and the rest of our bosses.
Your Dr Campbell repeats throughout the clip you share, the mantra of vaccination.
I know, he is a vaccine advocate 100%. But he also did a lot on Ivermectin – look at those. He is a true ‘Vaccine’ believer – but I do wonder if this latest news will shake his faith.
Your dr Campbell is a retired A&E nurse, a former clerk with an obscure doctorate in nurse education. He parrots official statistics and made upwards of 200k on YT Ad revenue last year
The waters are not unknown! But like all waterways, even the best mapped, there are still risks. Sure! So what are you gonna do? Sail a waterway with a few risks of take a chance on going over the coral reefs or stay at home and not sail at all.
Of course everyone will get Covid! But that’s okay PROVIDED you’re vaccinated because that means it’s highly likely you won’t get very ill:and it’s VERY highly likely you won’t die! Of course if you’re NOT vaccinated it’s likely you won’t get very ill (not highly likely though): and highly likely you won’t die either (but not very highly likely).
You see it’s all about risk. If you’re vaccinated you run a tiny risk. If you’re not you run a small risk. It’s pretty simple but you guys just can’t seem to get it? Closed minds I guess?
It’s like driving with worn brakes: you probably won’t crash the car anyway. But if you get the brakes fixed you might still crash the car so you’re logic is worn brakes are better. You gotta BALANCE the risks man!
I think you’re missing the point! Those are predictions at best: or promises? They are not nudges. A nudge is an attempt to convince someone (the public generally) to act in a certain way: a gentle reminder: it may be accompanied of course by a promised benefit (or the lack of same which may be construed as a punishment?).. like the Prof says this started in the garden of Eden and hasn’t let up since: he metely studied it and codified it in a way which can ve used for good. The wicket are well acquainted with its methods and need no education in its manipulation. It is US that need to learn about it so we don’t fall prey to it when it is used with an evil intent.
You want to shoot the messenger?
If you agree with the nudges they’re great. If not, then they’re creepy government manipulation.
But unlike legislation, where there can be a debate about what the law should be, with nudges they’re often decided behind the scenes – test and find out which is the most successful manipulation – so it feels like controlling behaviours, and not open public information and discussion (see how much discussion has been shut down) – which then destroys trust, a massively important commodity. When Big Tech does it, it’s not what am I being sold, but why am I being sold this?
To avoid this nudges and messaging needs to be overt – no trickery- and supported by discussion and information that debates whether the nudges should be used. For instance on no smoking, the ‘Smoking Kills’ message was introduced with discussion and then legislation. The public wants to be in control of the government, not the other way around.
And secondly, the nudges themselves can be directly controversial and potentially erroneous leading to negative unforeseen outcomes. Road layout changes to encourage (nudge) cycling, or walking, or reduce speed. Cheaper diesel to nudge towards diesel which then added to air particulates. Car parking charges to discourage use of cars which then pushes people to out-of-town shopping. If the discussion is open, then edge cases can be identified, or unexpected outcomes seen. If the ‘nudge’ is coming out of the backroom, it can be too late before anyone picks up on the problems.
“The single most important thing in knowing how many refuse the vaccine is knowing how many in that area voted for Trump. I find that distressing as I cannot remember a political party being against health” (paraphrased, minute 24)
I find this whole interview, and the guy, creepy, and turned it off after the above. I feel he may well be just the kind of academic Jordan Peterson warns us of, but who knows, a search did not match the two.
The thinking of some force for good would be ‘Nudges’ worries me, and hearing 400 governments and NGOs have departments dedicated to it? I also wondered of Tech/Social Media, which is completely captured by forces for evil it would seem, I do not see how nudging would be a force for good in these most powerful forces in the world. Anyway, I did not listen to much of it as it was creeping me out for some reason…..
Indeed. This is the line of thinking “said person thinks/acts X because they support Trump”, ie., the link from voting for Trump to the thought/action is causal. This is, of course, complete nonsense. Clearly, here there is common cause: people who lean libertarian are more likely to vote republican (and hence Trump, whether or not they liked him) and are more likely to question the vaccine narrative.
Do yourself a favour and watch to the end. Sayers is superb.
Good suggestion. Having watched the whole interview, my takeaway is the professor believes nudging is pushing people toward a beneficial choice, as distinct from manipulation which is pushing them toward a choice that does not benefit them.
The professor starts with a fairly innocuous example of nudging where London street signs encourage people to ‘Look right’ so they are not struck by oncoming traffic. Fair enough. But he quickly moves on to other nudge messages where the alleged benefits are less clear (e.g., vaccinating young people against covid). At bottom, it appears nudging is doing what the government (or other knowledgeable entity) suggests you do because the government thinks it’s best for you.
The professor was, in fact, quite dogmatic. The most significant moment for me occurs at about minute 41.10 where, in response to Freddie’s question about what frightens him in relation to big tech and business practices, he replies, “I don’t like fishing expeditions.” I took that to mean he didn’t like Freddie’s attempts to get him to identify bad nudging practices (or really anything bad about big tech and what many people view as its manipulation of its users).
Professor Thaler seems pleasant and benign, but his inflexible defense of ‘nudging’ is quite unnerving.
I see now why I must steel myself to watch to the end. The reason I turned off is that I found him unpleasant and malign 🙂
I agree, his benign, mild mannered persona was what scared me most.
We’re born, we die and between those 2 facts is life & the only thing that stops it from being an existential scream is knowing that the intervening years are mine to do with as I please. This mild mannered man doesn’t like that idea, he believes a regime that controls individualism by coercion, and dissent and resistence by exclusion and poverty of life is…. better?He’s a smiling (almost giggling) fascist but he doesn’t know it.
That’s the scary part: ‘he doesn’t know it’; except that the man’s unravelling right at the end might give him pause, and lead him to deeper insight into the nature of the issues and their consequences, which he clearly hasn’t understood.
Therefore, my deep gratitude to Unherd and, in this instance, Freddie Sayers, because, as I see it, humankind is at the crossroads, which this interviews clearly demonstrates.
Goodness! I didn’t find him ‘benign and mild mannered’ but deeply sinister and dogmatic. Like some others I had to grit my teeth and force myself to listen to the end. Thanks due to Freddie for persisting with his lines of questioning.
Wrong! You confuse correlation with causation: he said, simply, if you want to predict what percentage will refuse the vaccine in a given area the most accurate predictor (NOT cause) is to measure the Trump votes in that area. Statisticians do that a lot. It saves time.
What are you worried about? Promoting ideas? Advertising? Selling? Persuading? These scare you? Geez ..lucky you! Some of us have serious things that scare us like climate change, wars, economic breakdown, pandemics etc. but you’re scared someone will nudge you in a given direction? What? Grow a pair man!
If you “nudge” me when I’m standing next to a cliff edge, I’ll “nudge” you back then watch you like a hawk to make sure you can’t do it again. If you push me when I’m standing next to a cliff edge, I’ll punch you in the face to make sure you can’t do it again.
Compelling me to take an incompletely tested, unlicensed medical product designed to attack my immune system in still poorly understood ways, for a pathogen I’ve had and didn’t cause me any harm, is like pushing me when I’m standing next to a cliff.
Anyone unwise enough to contemplate this should not be surprised if the results are not what they expect.
If these vaccines turn out to be safe and effective, I’ll consider taking one even if it doesn’t benefit me. But even if they turn out to be safe and effective, I will never take one even if it benefits me if they try and coerce me. Because some things are more important that health.
Nudges work both ways.
Maybe I shouldn’t comment before I’ve watched but we “long ago stopped people smoking in public”? We stopped them smoking inside (in Ireland, the first I believe, in 2001 of thereabouts) but in public? Huh? It’s not illegal to smoke in public! Even in Australia it’s still not illegal to smoke. I am a “never smoker” so just making the point.
The smoking thing is pure hyperbole. I mean we have long since stopped 9 year old boys going down the coal mines too.
So many unfounded assumptions in what Thaler says. What staggers the most is his entirely unselfconscious belief in himself and people of his ilk as the ‘we’ who are the arbiters of what is good and true on behalf of the great unwashed. So effortlessly and thoughtlessly patrician – and yet so clueless, really, about how people actually think and behave. But this is how the US views the rest of the world too alas – with a sort of earnest, naive but ruthless determination to arrange us all in neat, silent rows of obedient ‘democrats’.
Absolutely spot on. Like a lot of economists, he seems to think that his knowledge spans all disciplines, from vaccines and pandemic control to climate change to the UK pensions industry (a particular bug-bear of mine). In reality, he cannot possibly be an expert in all these fields – his opinions are of no greater worth than yours or mine, or the great unwashed. And the really scary thing is that he seems to think that the western world should be beholden to the advice of him and his kind.
If nudging isn’t secret and is meant to be out in the open, then label it clearly as “nudge content”. For example, “This content is designed and presented to affect your behaviour“, We already do this with disclosure of advertisements in video / tv content.
If nudges can stand up to this exposure then fine, but they should be labelled for what they are – psychological manipulations design to elicit a response that a human may not have made otherwise.
An excellent suggestion.Won’t happen, of course.
This man is a very dangerous human being. He thinks the same way as did Joseph Stalin.
He continually says he is in favour of freedom and individuality….but when push comes to shove always jumps to the authoritarian stance of ‘people must do as I say by force if I can’t persuade them with words’
He says he doesn’t want to live in a state like China but at the same time describes how he would control people’s actions in the exact same way as does the Chinese government.
Infectiousness is the same vaccinated or not. So what use a Vax passport or indeed mass vaccination.
If vulnerable and one wants the jab, take it.
If so, why the apparent need of tbe prof, to condone the illogical and evince self satisfied righteous preference for relatively pointless mass vaccination.
Horror with an oh so reasonable smile and effortless rectitude.
End of discussion ? If not pls enlighten….
WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus March 11, 2020 “It’s completely understandable that people want to get on with their lives, but we will not be going back to the old normal.”
He knew. He knew because he was a WEF member.
If signs telling this guy to look right when at a road (in a different part of the world where they drive on the other side of the road) saved his life, I’m just going to flat out state this man is lacking in at least one competence required to function as an adult.
From this perspective his book is less about humanity and decision making, and more about his own deeply embedded cries of help to be a competent functioning adult.
Also, not to be pedantic or anything, but you cannot save a life. Earth has a 100% kill rate.
So…the difference between manipulation and nudging is based on the ad hominem judgment of the practitioner’s motivations. Dom Cummings couldn’t possibly believe that leaving the EU would restore control (no matter how many Brussels bureaucrats are stipulating rules and standards). So Dom is “manipulating” and not “nudging”. I’m not sure how Nobel-prize-winning science can be based on such sketchy non-replicable judgments.
Like a lot of economists, Thaler seems to think that his knowledge spans all disciplines, from vaccines and pandemic control to climate change to the UK pensions industry. In reality, he cannot possibly be an expert in all these fields – his opinions are of no greater worth than yours or mine – but they seem to align perfectly with the current liberal orthodoxy. Because he cannot be an expert in all these fields, he cannot know whether the nudges that are emanating from the 400 Governments and NGOs that are using his theory (which he seems to be so proud of) are being used for good or evil. He seems to me to be a modern day Machiavelli, with his nudge theory being a modern day equivalent of ‘The Prince’. A very scary person, especially considering his stance on mandating vaccines where nudging doesn’t work and his response to Freddie’s question about China and the social credit system.
I like Freddie’s shirt. That colour suits him.
“You don’t see the word manipulation very much in the book because we don’t think that nudging is manipulation. It’s almost never secret”
Until the Government get a hold of the idea and it becomes secret and an exercise in mass manipulation. We need to separate theory from practice here.
As a victim of ‘Nudge politics’ from HMRC I know all to well how they have used ‘Nudge theory’ to scare taxpayers into submission on various schemes.
The practical reality is a horrible, manipulative, ‘Nanny Knows Best’ attitude that does long term harm.
Thaler keeps defining “nudge” by using the example of road signs saying “Look right,” which are intended to warn pedestrians who are not used to certain traffic patterns.
Is this really a “nudge?” It’s a piece of helpful information which is manifestly true and presented in a forthright manner—if it’s a “nudge” then so are many other signs. Slippery when wet. Dangerous curves ahead. Flashing yellow light. These are true, helpful, and leave it to the individual to decide how to respond.
The worrisome kind of nudging is that which hides information and choices. It’s not traffic signage that provides true information; it’s more like a motorist who can’t find any parking because powers-that-be “know” that you shouldn’t be driving to begin with so they design road systems to make it less convenient to get around by driving.
Freddie would be a great courtroom advocate. But I am glad he didn’t make that choice!
Professor Thaler, “only you can prevent forest fires.”
The irony – Thaler says that nudging for good is ok while nudging for evil not. And by what standards is he defining what falls in what category? His own? He is on the side of the popular view, deep inside the society whose views he echos. -Mandating vaccines & non smoking areas is good but China control system is evil & Uber and Lyft are crazy to be charging exorbitant fares from a burning town etc etc. It’s a typical view someone like him rationalises and justifies to meet their own moral standing. He has a set of beliefs and he then ascribes actions as good & bad accordingly.
Where are the non partisans who can see both perspectives? Those are the most convincing ,influential & long lasting. There doesn’t seem to be an influential objective voice out there any more as it gets silenced by the prejudiced and the ‘know betters’.
There is a great deal of difference between government nudging on social well-being and vaccines. He cannot see that. Or perhaps he doesn’t want to.
Like most of these issues, whether they do more harm than good or vice versa really depends on whether the recipient (beneficiary or victim?) is, on the one hand smart, educated and so discerning or, on the other hand naive, stupid, ignorant or esp gullible.
Freddie, laudibly wants to protect the latter group while the Professor wants to enhance the experience of both groups: but he fails to see the pitfalls. This is typical of even clever Americans who, being a bit more “innocent” than us sneaky and manipulative British/Irish maybe?
Both are correct but only provided you are considering one or other group. Clearly, tight regulation of nudging is required: if that and full transparency and honesty are part of that regulation then well designed nudging is highly desirable.
However (and it’s a big ‘however’) the powerful are unlikely to regulate against their own ability to manipulate the gullible. I’m referring to government and their paymasters in big Tech. and big Everthing else!
Maybe the best sulution is to name and shame the wrongdoers? Freddie and Co. do a reasonable job on that as do others. It’s probably the only viable solution?
The idiots have been humoured for too long. We need 90% of the country immune to covid or periods of exponential growth and consequent restrictions will continue. The time’s come to make it very inconvenient not to be vaccinated if medically able. It worked to a large extent in France.
Great example: Take the v and wear a mask – keep your job, go out to eat, go to school, keep your friends = nudge; Protest and ask questions – can’t find answers, get fined, get arrested, gets account frozen, villain-ized, ostracized = sludge. Sometimes you have no choice but to sludge.
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