Nudge Nudge, Wink Wink: Is Britain’s Push Against Pornography a Problem?

Alessandro Sisti

We all make bad choices. We eat too much and save too little. We start projects and don’t bother to follow through with them. We put off till tomorrow what we should have done yesterday.

When many of us make the same bad choices, a personal problem can become a public problem. Wouldn’t it be nice, then, if governments could help us make the choices we know we want to make, while still not taking away our ability to choose? While this strategy sounds like a win-win for governments and the public alike, the approach has given policymakers a toolkit to change behaviour not as people themselves want, but as the government wants.

In the past few decades, findings in psychology have revealed that human beings make decisions in ways that are systematically irrational. In 2008, these findings were both popularized and applied to public policy policy by legal scholar Cass Sunstein and economist Richard Thaler in their book Nudge. The book advanced an approach that the authors labeled “libertarian paternalism,” — an intentional paradox.

Sunstein and Thaler argued that these findings demonstrated one way that governments could make people’s lives better. According to the two authors, our decisions are corrupted by systematic cognitive biases, and there is no neutral way that information can be presented. Therefore, governments might as well present information in a way that makes people’s lives better, according to the preferences of those people themselves.

Such deliberate design of “choice architecture,” Sunstein and Thaler argue, is not illegitimately coercive as long as people are still left free to choose without threat of legal or financial penalties and as long as the government’s intervention is made to help people do what they would want, and not what some bureaucrat would want. The argument is simple: it is better for government to “nudge” citizens than to shove them.

For example, if people want to save for retirement but often fail to do so on their own, it might make sense to change workplace pension plans so that people are automatically enrolled in them and have to opt out, rather than making them opt in.

Enthusiasm about this approach has been enormous in Anglophone democracies. In the United States, Sunstein was hired by Obama’s administration to make changes to the way American government operates. In Canada, a think tank recently recommended that governments nudge themselves as well as their citizens.

But the country that has truly embraced nudging is the U.K., where Prime Minister David Cameron was so thrilled by the idea of using insights from psychology to inform government policy that he created the Behavioural Insights Team, informally known as the “Nudge Unit.” The team has found ways to help Britons spend less on their energy bills (give them a coupon for attic cleaning services, and they’ll be more likely to insulate their attics), pay their taxes on time (when you send them a collection notice, tell them what percentage of the others in their area pay on time), and give to charity (use auto-enrolment schemes, make them donors feel rewarded, and use peer pressure).

These changes will probably do a significant amount of good. But the Cameron government has also introduced tools that are very different from simply helping people achieve their own goals. Last summer, Cameron announced that he would enact measures designed to protect children from the harms of the Internet. One of these measures was intended to make it more difficult for children to encounter Internet pornography.

Concerns about the potential social harms of pornography are not new, but the policy instrument through which Cameron intends to fight them is. Rather than requiring major Internet service providers (ISPs) to make pornography filters mandatory, the government now requires new subscribers to ISPs to opt out of the filter. New subscribers are presented with a message that looks like this (to use an example from the U.K.’s biggest ISP), and the framing of the choice is clearly designed to nudge people into accepting the filter.

Having adopted the habit of nudging, Cameron is now using an instrument (fiddling with default options) beloved of nudgers in a way completely contrary to the aims of the libertarian paternalist project as outlined by Sunstein and Thaler. Cameron isn’t helping people make choices they themselves want to make; he’s imposing the wishes of one some people (mostly women, according to this survey) on others.

Is making pornography slightly more difficult to access the worst thing a government could do? Probably not. But there are still reasons to be concerned.

First is the rapidity with which a government has discovered a new tool and abused it: it has been less than six years since Nudge was released. Second, one can imagine much more insidious nudges than this one, which a government could easily enact. Third, nudges can be extremely effective in changing people’s choices, so that, as critics of even Sunstein and Thaler’s original formulation of libertarian paternalism have argued, nudges may seriously curtail our freedom, even if they do not do so explicitly. And fourth, governments are likely to be significantly less reluctant to curb people’s freedoms through nudges than through more forceful instruments, since they can always reply to critics of an insidious nudge that anyone who doesn’t like the default option is technically free to opt out of it.

It is too late to put the default-setting back in its Pandora’s box. Even if “nudge” policies are liable to abuse, it’s an instrument that could do much social good. If bad nudges are to be avoided, though, groups on both sides of government must act. Citizens must be vigilant against coercion by governments. And decision-makers in government must be careful about how they use nudges. At the very least, they should use the same sort of discretion, and the same care to consult citizens, as they would if they were to use harsher instruments.

Nudges offer a lot of potential for good. It would be a great shame if their abuse turned voters off before the policies had the chance to help citizens really change their lives for the better.

Alessandro Sisti is a 2015 Master of Public Policy candidate at the School of Public Policy and Governance. He studied classics at the University of Toronto. His policy interests include labour markets, health care, and the application of findings from behavioural economics to policymaking.


One Comment Add yours

  1. Deandre says:

    Heya just wanted to give you a brief heads up and let you
    know a few of the images aren’t loading correctly.
    I’m not sure why but I think its a linking issue. I’ve tried it in two different browsers and both show the same

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