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January 21, 2011



until institutions help individuals face the void of freedom (i.e. early education) are not "nudges" our best post-hoc solution?

Ian C

Excellent post - thanks.
It's not often I agree with the Institute of Ideas, but Claire Fox's dislike of Nudgery seems to me well-founded, in a rejection of the concept's sneaky paternalism and reluctance to treat people as citizens in a communal conversation as opposed to immature economic agents subject to Foucauldian warped consciousness, who can't be trusted ever to be persuadable in open debate to do what could be defined as the 'right thing', or at least a better one in some sense.
I can admire some of Foucault's critique of capital and governmentality but you are right that he just cannot provide an account of liberating change or of the persistence of hope. Habermas was right - Foucault et al are de facto accepters of the status quo of power, having no analysis of the real degrees of freedom that exist in which resistance, liberation and genuine progress can happen, and seeing no value in the constraints that people may seek out and welcome. There are 'limits for growth' in the emotional and spiritual sense, as monks and mystics have long realised, and many of us choose such limits rather than having them imposed on us.
At my University we're about to embark on a 3-year study of households at important transition points (first child / retirement), focusing on attitudes, values, hopes, dreams, constraints, choices and norms in relation to more environmentally sustainable living. One theme in this project is people's self-understanding of the implications of their choices, and another issue to be examined is how far Nudge is needed or likely to 'work'. Your point about Nudge and cultural capital is very well made and well taken.


"Bob Diamond's refusal to express gratitude or guilt is not unlike the Outsider's refusal to feel grief for his mother's death."

Today having seen Tony Blair back before Chilcot, I wonder which is preferable: Diamond's lack of sentiment, or Blair's constant invocation of it?

It has become fashionable of late to complain about the appeals to personal feelings and emotion of which Blair was the prime example, and to call for a return to a more professional way of conducting public affairs. I haven't read enough of Richard Sennett to quote chapter and verse, but he has written several books which explore this theme. If we follow Sennett et al., should we not praise Bob Diamond for refusing to emote on stage? Or should we condemn him for choosing the most advantageous moment to recover the professional demeanour that has been somewhat lacking in the banking sector for the last decade?

Dick Pountain

The Left has never valued traditional institutions like the family and religion, has seen them as devices for maintaining economic inequality. But reason they persist is because their power is emotional than economic - the glue that keeps both individual psyches and whole societies from falling apart. Certainly they thereby preserve existing property relations, but in recent decades advanced capitalism itself has become the great destroyer of traditional institutions, through iuts imperative to spread market values into every niche of life. So both ends of the political spectrum are intent on dissolving the social glue with little idea about what to replace it with. As Tony Judt put it, the wrecking ball is the only tool left in our the social engineering toolkit.


Yesterday in a piece published in 'Open Democracy', you used the phrase, "For the first time since the collapse of socialism". Can you tell me when this happy event occurred. The current coalition is more Socialist than Labour! Still cowtowing to the EU, LGBT lessons for schoolkids and further restrictions for motorists. These are not actions of a right of centre Government.


Hi Will. As the author of the RSA post you mention, I have to say I feel a little misrepresented by your piece, but on reflection I can see why you (and others) have interpreted my thoughts in the way you have. I’ve got two important points to clarify.

My post posed some initial thoughts on the condition of social exclusion, and set up the binary split you refer to as a framework for considering practical ways in which that condition might be improved. I fully agree that there is territory between structural causes of exclusion and the day-to-day behaviour of the excluded, in which people order their lives to make the best of the situations they find themselves in. This is in fact the very space that I am proposing offers an opportunity for change.

As you say: “the socially excluded are not ethically, behaviourally or neurologically inferior to anybody else, but often stuck with the paradox that the very things that make their lives meaningful are sometimes the same things that prevent them from improving their lives.” That is pretty much exactly what I mean by habit in this case – a routine that has developed in response to the exclusion caused by the structural challenges people face, but which in time itself serves to perpetuate the very exclusion it was adopted to alleviate. The problem I raised is that, being a habit, this routine itself becomes very difficult to change. The solution to that is something I’m still pondering; but my thoughts on it so far are the second aspect of the post to have been misunderstood.

I don’t think for a minute that government or anyone else should try to change people’s environments and nudge them out of exclusion. That would be futile, not least because the structural challenges people face vary considerably. It would also be insulting to suggest that such a ‘simple’ solution could address so complex a problem, and it would deny people the very autonomy and self-recognition that they need to change their routines.

Rather, my suggestion (to be made in the next post on this topic) is that people could be shown how their habits perpetuate their exclusion, and shown that they can break their own habits by a combination of altering their own environments and making conscious decisions to change their routines. This combination is important – as I noted, both angles of attack are needed for a habit to be broken – as is empowering people to take control of their own situations. As I said in a reply to a comment on my post, the state’s role in this would be educational and inspirational, not interventionist.

I suspect readers of my post have jumped the gun and assumed I am arguing for the state to have an active role in changing people’s environments or behaviour because discussion of this type of intervention has become so familiar of late. But I don’t think it’s appropriate here. As I said in my post: “there is potential for a behavioural approach to be effective – but it’s not as simple as Nudge”. Perhaps I should have explained what it is, rather than what it is not – but that would have resulted in a very long post indeed.

Sorry to go on, but I think it’s important that these thoughts are aired properly. And thanks for taking the time to respond to the post in the first place!

Will Davies

Thanks, Ben. To be clear, my post above was inspired by your's, but kind of goes off in its own direction. It should not all be taken as a direct critique of your own argument.

It seems like we agree on quite a bit, then. Though this is quite a surprising statement, given your initial post: "I don’t think for a minute that government or anyone else should try to change people’s environments and nudge them out of exclusion". Really? I guess the question then is where 'nudges' end and 'education' begins. It seems that a lot of nudging (and social marketing) arises from the recognition that providing people with information doesn't work. But maybe education would imply something more sympathetic and patient than moralistic or expert information-provision.


Hi Will. Don't worry - I found your post really interesting, and realise that only parts of it directly relate to mine. I think we do agree on a lot, but perhaps have different ways of expressing it.

I'd say the difference between nudging and education is key. Nudging is done to you (even if you don't realise it) and the idea is that everyone responds to a nudge in a similar way. Whereas education would allow you to make your own changes to your environment, which is important because a) it means you can decide which changes are likely to have the greatest effect in your particular situation and b) it allows you to understand your situation and take the fullest control of it.

So it's not a nudge that I'm calling for at all, but rather the ability to recognise the influence of your environment on your routine so that you can change it, and thus have a chance of altering your routine as well. Having re-read my post, perhaps the use of 'nudge' in the third para from the end gives a slightly different impression; it wasn't meant to.

I think that this kind of education would indeed involve sympathy, patience and deliberation, rather than didactic communication. And that's where the practical questions come it - how would this work in real life, and on a grand scale?

Dennis Tuchler

Limied freedom? Twaddle. The critical faculties we have are part of our conditioning in the context of a particular level of intellectual development and physical ability. They function as providing a way for those who have them to find the path set for them.

On the other hand, the determined person is constantly being buffeted by reaction to phenomena -- even those that were not to be noticed according to previous conditioning, if they are sufficiently persistent.

Marx, then was right (this small time), but so was Aristotle. We cannot choose what we are, but the idea of liberty is really an idea about conditions for flourishing. Maybe nudges, properly chosen, help that flourishing.

Caroline Pearce

Great post.

I wholeheartedly agree that the rise of 'nudges' and the emphasis on well-being will follow the same pattern as social capital by becoming a token that merely provides an appealing gloss to a hideous and deteriorating situation.

We are inescapably shaped, restrained and transformed by the environment in which we live - as you clearly stated in your post. And because of this it is not possible to defend peoples' rituals and habits against being nudged for these habits are no more ours than they are the government's or anyone else's.

Instead of tackling the source of the problem - social inequalities - individuals are blamed and nudged into action, a quick-fix, that leaves the structural inequalities of society untouched.


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