Richard H. Thaler: on vaccines, ‘nudge’ isn’t enough

September 2, 2021
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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. 

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:

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. This is one big misconception. The whole point of nudging is for people to notice. One of my favourite nudges is one that has saved my life. On one of my many visits to London, there are those friendly little ‘look right’ signs on the street that help us Americans not get run over by oncoming traffic. If those were printed in invisible ink, they would not nudge… The mantra of nudge is if you want people to do something, make it easy.
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd

Why nudging isn’t enough for vaccines:

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. We long ago stopped allowing people to smoke in public. People can disagree about whether that was a good or bad policy, but it made non-smokers healthier. And it encouraged a lot of people to quit smoking, because it became more inconvenient. Now, that’s not nudging, that’s regulating.
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd

Do people resent being manipulated?

Well, it doesn’t help when it’s called ‘manipulated’. It took 50 years to convince people that it was unhealthy to smoke. In the early years, like the 70s and 80s, smokers felt like they were being manipulated. But if you look back now, the messaging was very mild. And the manipulation was being done by the tobacco companies. So one person’s educational campaign is another person’s manipulation. 
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd

On Dominic Cummings:

Perhaps the greatest practitioner of the art of framing in the last decade was Dom Cummings, who coined the brilliant phrase ‘take back control’ to describe why the United Kingdom couldn’t withdraw from the EU. He explicitly credits behavioural economics for the inspiration for that phrase, because we talk about loss aversion. People hate losing. So let’s describe that we’ve lost something and that we’re going to take it back…I’m willing to say that what Dominic Cummings was doing was manipulation. Because I don’t think he believed for a minute that the UK had lost control and that Brexit was going to get it back.
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd

Is nudging an alternative to Chinese authoritarianism?

​​Absolutely. The whole point of nudge is to say, “How much can we achieve even if we’re willing to tie one hand behind our back and not require anyone to do anything?” That was the theory behind the original book. It’s an alternative to China. We don’t want to live in a state where we don’t have freedom of speech. We don’t want to live in a state where people are telling us what to do. 
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd

What he doesn’t like:

I don’t like what financial sector firms are doing to their customers. I don’t like the fact that you can join more easily than un-join…I’m a professor at a business school and I spend a lot of time trying to teach my students what it means to have good corporate responsibility. One of the lessons is ‘don’t do it if you wouldn’t want it to appear on the front page of the newspaper’. Now, there are many practices that I don’t think pass that test. Uber and Lyft were charging $1,000 for rides from Lake Tahoe to Reno when it was catching on fire. That’s both evil and stupid business practice.
- Richard Thaler, UnHerd


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