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Get ready for the nudging

Before joining the Obama Administration as regulatory czar, Cass Sunstein taught law at Chicago University and co-authored a book with fellow professor Richard Thalen, titled Nudge, Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness. The 2008 book's thesis, centered around “organizing the context in which people make decisions,” forms Sunstein's philosophy that harsh regulation is no longer the most acceptable, or even most effective, method governments should use to effect change. Instead, he writes, change agents can subtly construct and manipulate the "choice architecture" in order to “nudge” people to come to the appropriate predetermined conclusions that steer them toward the actions authorities want them to take.

Sunstein and others have applied the concept of nudging to a range of issues they perceive as public problems, from sustainability and environmental protection to encouraging saving for retirement to increasing the buy-in for organ donation. Now included in that list of public problems is the "pandemic" of global obesity and unhealthy lifestyles, including how and what people eat.

While the traditional public policies to promote healthier lifestyles, particularly for children, are broadly accepted and have been tried at the local and national level, Sunstein now writes in the upcoming May issue of the journal Food Policy, too often they've been unsuccessful, often because people see them as too intrusive. As a result, he writes along with colleagues from Denmark's Copenhagen Business School, governments worldwide have become increasingly interested in making dietary changes by the less-intrusive nudge.

To test the level of public support for nudging consumers to more acceptable eating, Sunstein and colleagues surveyed 1,000 to 2,000 citizens in each of six European countries they believe represent a range of political philosophies and cultures, from a Nordic welfare state with a long tradition of paternalistic health policies and a public health care system (Denmark), to a social- market economy with a deep, historically grounded distrust of the type of paternalism nudging represents (Germany). They asked a sample whether they approved or disapproved of the following hypothetical policies.

His results suggest that if Europe leads the United States in adopting these indirect ideas toward forcing a better diet, as it has with other "progressive" areas such as animal welfare and sustainability, you can expect these nudges to come to a U.S. supermarket near you.

Public education messages

Percent who favored using public education aimed at children through parents

"To reduce childhood obesity, the national government adopts a public education campaign, consisting of information that parents can use to make healthier choices for their children."
Approval of this "least intrusive" nudge is high in all countries, Sunstein writes, because governments worldwide have already spent decades implementing campaigns targeted at educating parents on healthier food and lifestyles.

Percent who favored making movie theaters show health commercials

"The federal government requires movie theaters to run public education messages designed to discourage individuals from smoking and overeating."
Although slightly less popular, this mandated public-health campaign still received "overwhelming" support, according to Sunstein. As in all comparable studies, women approved more of all the health nudges, which might be partly explained by their being generally more health conscious, he suggests.

Mandatory information nudges

Percent who favored requiring calorie labeling

"The federal government requires calorie labels at chain restaurants (such as McDonald’s and Burger King)"
Despite the additional intrusiveness of requiring action by private institutions, this nudge still earned 83.2 percent overall approval.

Percent who favored requiring calorie labeling

"The federal government requires labels on products that have unusually high levels of salt; for example, 'This product has been found to contain unusually high levels of salt, which may be harmful to your health'"
Opposition to Hungary's recently passed tax on salty snacks and tight regulation on salt labeling may have been reflected in the relatively lower acceptance there for this nudge.

Percent who favored requiring health labeling

"The federal government requires a 'traffic light' system for food by which healthy foods would be sold with a small green label, unhealthy foods with a small red label, and foods that are neither especially healthy nor especially unhealthy with a small yellow label"
Sunstein found the level of support for this nudge "surprising" given the political debate in many European countries has shown "considerable skepticism about such labelling."

Choice architecture

Percent who favored requiring grocers to feature healthy items

"A state law requires all large grocery stores to place their most healthy foods in a prominent, visible location."
These types of "choice by default" are often the most prominent and effective nudges, he says. They tend to stick because of inertia or the informational signal they contain across diverse cultures.

Percent who favored banning candy in the checkout aisle

"To halt the rising obesity problem, the federal government requires large supermarket chains to keep cashier areas free of sweets"
Both these nudges are currently being tested by retailers in some European countries, perhaps to stave off harsher regulation through voluntary action. Approval rates overall are high.

Choice editing

Percent who favored requiring institutions to have a meat-free day

"For reasons of public health and climate protection, the federal government requires cafeterias in public institutions (e.g., schools, public administration offices) to have one meat-free day per week"
Because choice editing eliminates choice in a particular setting, it can be regarded as intrusion that goes beyond a simple nudge, Sunstein writes. Nevertheless the majority in all but two countries found it appealing.

Subliminal advertising

Percent who favored subliminal healthy advertising

"The federal government requires movie theaters to provide subliminal advertisements (i.e., advertisements that go by so quickly that individuals are not consciously aware of them) designed to discourage individuals from smoking and overeating"
Although Sunstein believes this practice to go beyond the bounds of nudge and into "manipulation," 43 percent of respondents overall still approved, with a "puzzling" near-majority in the United Kingdom.

Critics of this kind of behaviorally based regulation protest that citizens don't like to be nudged by their governments, because nudges are manipulative, paternalistic and subject to the biases and assumptions of the nudger, he writes. Those questions of whether noncoercive influences can threaten both the autonomy and dignity of citizens is a valid question, Sunstain acknowledges in another of his books, The Ethics of Influence. But he dismisses those concerns, at least in the abstract, arguing instead that "both choice architecture and nudges are inevitable, and it is therefore pointless to wish them away," and that when you consider the ends that are at stake the means are justified—even mandatory on ethical grounds—as long as government makes it transparent that it's manipulating its citizens.

Too incredulous to believe? Let us know your thoughts.

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