Nudging Americans into the 'right choice'

In California, the city of San Francisco recently approved an ordinance requiring beverage firms to place warning labels on ads for soda and other drinks to alert consumers to health risks. Studies suggest Americans are likely to favour reforms in ar
In California, the city of San Francisco recently approved an ordinance requiring beverage firms to place warning labels on ads for soda and other drinks to alert consumers to health risks. Studies suggest Americans are likely to favour reforms in areas such as health and safety as long as their freedom of choice is not violated.PHOTO: AGENCE FRANCE-PRESSE

IN RECENT years, the federal government has adopted a large number of "soft interventions" that are meant to change behaviour without mandates and bans. Among them: disclosure of information, such as calorie labels at chain restaurants; graphic warnings against, for example, distracted driving; and automatic enrolment in programmes designed to benefit employees, like pension plans.

Informed by behavioural science, such reforms can have significant effects while preserving freedom of choice. But sceptics deride these soft interventions as unjustified paternalism, an insult to dignity and a contemporary version of the nanny state. Some people fear that uses of behavioural science will turn out to be manipulative. They don't want to be nudged.

But what do Americans actually think about soft interventions? I recently conducted a nationally representative survey of 563 people. Small though that number might seem, it gives a reasonable picture of what Americans think, with a margin of error of plus or minus 4.1 percentage points.

The remarkable finding is that most Americans approve of such reforms and want a lot more - and their approval generally cuts across partisan lines.

Republicans and Democrats agree that soft interventions can help people meet their own goals with respect to health, safety and economic security. Americans might not like paternalism but, when they are asked about specific nudges, they tend to be supportive. And when they dislike some interventions - as they definitely do - Republicans and Democrats usually agree as well, suspecting that the government has illegitimate goals or is acting inconsistently with people's interests or values.

About 87 per cent of those questioned in the survey approve of the federal government's requirement for calorie labels at chain restaurants. Nearly 85 per cent favour an aggressive public education campaign from the federal government, "consisting of vivid and sometimes graphic stories and images", to discourage distracted driving. About 80 per cent want the federal government to encourage automatic enrolment in pension plans. Indeed, 71 per cent would support a federal mandate requiring large employers to adopt automatic enrolment. In every one of these cases, majority support cuts across partisan divisions.

There are many more ways to inform or influence choices, and Americans want some of them to happen. About 82 per cent favour a public education campaign to reduce obesity, at least if it consists of "information that parents can use to make healthier choices for their children". Over 75 per cent would like the federal government to engage in a public education campaign to encourage people not to discriminate based on sexual orientation.

More than 72 per cent would favour a warning label on products with unhealthily high levels of salt. About 70 per cent would like state governments to require people to state, when they obtain their driver's licence, whether they want to be organ donors. (Such a requirement could end up saving a lot of lives.) More than 70 per cent want the federal government to encourage electricity providers to enrol consumers automatically in a "green" energy source, while allowing consumers to opt out if they wish. Strikingly, 67 per cent say they would favour a federal law compelling large electricity providers to adopt such a system. In all of these cases as well, support comes from majorities of Democrats, Republicans and independents.

There is also a lot of agreement over which soft interventions should be rejected. Across political lines, a majority of Americans disapprove of a federal campaign to encourage mothers of young children to stay home - and also a campaign informing people that they can change their gender.

Most Democrats, Republicans and independents would reject a law requiring the automatic payment (subject to an opt-out provision) of a US$10 (S$13) "climate-change surcharge" on airline tickets. Most people do not favour a system in which the tax authorities assume that taxpayers want to give US$50 to the Red Cross (even if people can opt out of the donation). Americans don't like the idea of giving their money automatically, or without an explicit choice on their part.

For some interventions, the level of approval or disapproval does vary significantly across political lines, and some interventions prove divisive. Over 62 per cent of Democrats favour a system of automatic voter registration, recently adopted in Oregon and supported by Mrs Hillary Clinton. But more than 61 per cent of Republicans reject it, perhaps because they think people ought to take the trouble to register, perhaps because they believe it is not in their political interest. Independents are evenly divided.

Intriguingly, majorities of both Democrats and independents favour a state law requiring "all large grocery stores to place their most healthy foods in a prominent, visible location".

Most Republicans dislike this idea, although 43 per cent support it. Most Democrats and most independents favour an unusually aggressive anti-obesity campaign from the federal government - one that shows "obese children struggling to exercise", as well as interviews with obese adults saying such things as, "To me, obesity is like a terrible curse." By a slight majority of 53 per cent, Republicans reject this campaign, perhaps because they see it as manipulative.

This is just one survey, of course, but other research supports the same conclusions.

A large study of citizens of the United States and Sweden, led by researcher William Hagman of Linkoping University in Sweden, finds broad support for health, safety and environmental nudges in both nations, with somewhat higher levels in Sweden.

Another study, led by researcher David Tannenbaum of the University of Chicago, finds that both Republicans and Democrats often approve of soft interventions, such as automatic enrolment in government programmes, even though their views can also be affected by whether they think that such interventions will support their own policy preferences.

The lesson for politicians everywhere is clear. There is every reason to think that, whatever their political leanings, Americans will be highly receptive to numerous reforms designed to improve health, safety, economic security, environmental quality and democratic self-government - at least if those reforms do not eliminate their freedom of choice.


A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'Nudging Americans into the 'right choice''. Print Edition | Subscribe