Sep 12, 2015

The nudge theory and beyond: how people can play with your mind

Mental manipulation can be backed by good intentions – but when used with stealth, it is deceitful and wrong

Nick Chater
The Observer
September 12, 2015

A couple of decades ago, a class of psychology undergraduates played a mean trick on their lecturer. The students on the right side of the room gently nodded, smiled, and looked thoughtful, while those on the left seemed bored and glum. Before long, the unsuspecting lecturer was addressing the “right” students with enthusiasm, with only the odd uncomfortable glance to the rest. On some secret sign, the students changed roles – and the lecturer duly switched to addressing students to the left. Memories are vague on how often the hapless lecturer was pushed to and fro.

The students’ hilarity was no doubt considerable, especially as the trick used one of the key principles they were being taught: that pigeons, rats or lecturers do more of what is rewarded, and less of what is punished. But how did the lecturer feel when the trick was revealed? In his shoes, I imagine myself trying to summon a brave laugh, but feeling pretty dreadful. Even where no malice is intended, the sense of having been manipulated is hurtful indeed.

University lecturers, like the rest of us, can change their behaviour according to the audience.

So what is manipulation, and why do we hate it? I think it is best viewed as behaviour with the purpose of influencing another person, but which works only if that purpose is concealed. For example, the secret planning of the students’ smiles and frowns was crucial to their scheme’s success. It is the secrecy that really outrages us (with a tinge of humiliation, perhaps, because we were taken in). Manipulation is a form of deceit.

I was reminded of this in a recent talk by the guru of persuasion research, Professor Robert Cialdini of Arizona State University. He eloquently summarised the key forces that persuade us, including the principle that we tend to believe people we like. At the end of his talk, he said he had deliberately begun his presentation with a broad smile: to make us like us like him and, crucially, therefore to believe him.

I felt an inward shudder; I’d been manipulated, perhaps all too effectively. Of course, this was manipulation with the best of intentions. The secret of the trick was freely shared to help us understand, and guard against, the power of manipulation. But still the shudder remained.

Cialdini was speaking at the recent Behavioural Exchange conference in London, which brought together many of the world’s most celebrated psychologists, behavioural economists and policy-makers to consider how understanding human behaviour can help make governments work better. This sounds innocuous enough. Whether creating aircraft controls, computer interfaces or smartphones, it is a basic principle of design to work with the grain of the human mind, not against it. Why should it be any different for government policy?

The results of the research are intriguing. We heard from the “Nudge Unit”, a spin-out from the cabinet office, how tiny tweaks in government communication may increase the success rates of ethnic minority applicants to join the police; can help people to take vital medications; or pay their taxes on time. Research by Cornell University’s Brian Wansinck, who spoke at the meeting, shows that, for example, we eat more ice-cream when we have a larger bowl – and still more when wielding a larger spoon.

Could smaller cones persuade us to eat less ice cream?
Could smaller cones persuade us to eat less ice cream? Photograph: Woods Wheatcroft/Corbis
With rising levels of obesity and diabetes, perhaps government should tell manufacturers to produce smaller scoops, smaller bowls, and perhaps smaller ice-cream tubs, packs of sugary or fattening foods, less capacious wine-glasses and smaller bottles of alcoholic drinks. Could these, and many other “nudges”, gently steer us to healthier and happier lives, without resorting to punitive taxes or even outright bans on the offending foodstuffs?

But for many of us here is also a sense of disquiet. Doesn’t putting these psychological insights, however well-meaning, into government policy amount to state manipulation of the people? Yet once we understand the nature of manipulation, the remedy is clear. Avoiding it means avoiding deception: a good, honest, nudge is one that works even when we know we are being nudged, and why. But the spell cast by a bad, manipulative, nudge is broken as soon as its secret is revealed.

Suppose that one of the psychology students had leaked their plan before the lecture. Then the lecturer would have been laughing and his audience feeling foolish as they went through their routine of synchronised, but strangely ineffective, facial expressions. Or suppose Cialdini had announced: “Now I’m going to smile broadly, so that you like me and believe everything I say.” That would surely have been horribly counterproductive.

But which nudges still work, even when they are out in the open? Do we still eat less ice-cream with a bowl labelled “smaller bowls for smaller servings”? The research remains to be done. On the one hand, we might think: “How thoughtful, this is a great way to save myself from over-indulgence.” A good nudge. But we might react with irritation and have an extra helping to “fight back”.

So the upshot is: let’s say no to manipulation – that is, to influence by stealth or deception. This should apply to how governments treat us, and to how we treat each other. (And, just in case any of my students are reading this, it also means no tricks on lecturers.)

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