Craig R. Fox and David Tannenbaum, The Curious Politics of the ‘Nudge’

In one experiment, we presented participants of varying political persuasions with short descriptions of various behavioral policy nudges (e.g., designating enrollment in a program as a default). To explain how such policy tools could be applied, we illustrated them using either an example of a liberal policy priority (e.g., encouraging low-income individuals to enroll in food stamps programs for which they were legally eligible) or a conservative policy priority (e.g., encouraging the wealthy to take advantage of capital gains tax breaks they were legally eligible for). The participants were then asked to rate how ethical, manipulative and coercive they found the nudge to be, as a general policy approach.

We found that the illustrations — which were arbitrary examples, logically speaking — greatly influenced their evaluations. In almost every case, respondents on the left of the political spectrum supported nudges when they were illustrated with a liberal agenda but opposed them when they were illustrated with a conservative one; meanwhile, respondents on the political right exhibited the opposite pattern.

In another experiment, we found that even when both the nudge and the policy that it promoted were held constant, people’s evaluations were strongly biased by the political party that endorsed the policy. For instance, we told participants that the government could increase participation in an employer-sponsored retirement savings program by automatically enrolling employees. This proposal was modeled after a key provision of a law signed by George W. Bush and later extended under the Obama administration. For some participants, we mentioned that the policy was endorsed by the George W. Bush administration; for other participants, we mentioned that it was endorsed by Mr. Obama.

Again, we found that both liberals and conservatives were strongly affected by the administration mentioned. Conservatives found the use of automatic enrollment defaults more acceptable when they learned that it was endorsed by Mr. Bush than by Mr. Obama, whereas liberals had the opposite response.

It is one thing to show that laypeople are biased in their evaluation of nudges; it is another thing to show that experienced policy makers are similarly biased. In a final experiment, we approached sitting United States mayors at a summer conference and described the use of automatic enrollment defaults, then illustrated how they would work with either a liberal or conservative policy application. Here again, mayors tended to favor use of the policy tool when it was illustrated with an example that accorded with their own politics, but opposed using the very same tool when it was illustrated with an example that did not.

OPPOSITION to these policy interventions can certainly stem from principled beliefs. We found that people with more strongly libertarian sensibilities tended to be more resistant to nudges. However, we also found that evaluations of nudges were affected roughly three times as much by political preferences as by libertarian values.

Perhaps more important, we also found that when behavioral policy tools were described without mention of a specific policy application or sponsor, the bias disappeared. In this “blind taste test,” liberals and conservatives were roughly equally accepting of the use of policy nudges.

Craig R. Fox and David Tannenbaum, The Curious Politics of the ‘Nudge’

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Work ecologist. Founder, Work Futures. The ecology of work and the anthropology of the future.

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