The dangers of nudging for good
There has never been a more important time to ask the question of how governments can change behaviour for the public good.
The global coronavirus pandemic has highlighted the important role that behavioural science and associated "nudge" policies can play in keeping people safe, understanding risk and promoting health behaviours such as hand-washing, alternative handshakes, and compliance with social distancing rules.
But as a social researcher who has been investigating the ethics and politics of "behavioural governance" over the past decade, I also wonder whether this is the wrong question to be asking. Is changing behaviour always the right approach and how should public servants address the ethical dilemmas of applying behavioural insights? Researchers have long been asking whether behavioural public policies are ethical, and if so, how can we be sure to nudge for good?
Three considerations for an ethical approach: APT for citizens
Whether governments should nudge or not comes down to the ways in which different forms of knowledge or expertise are prioritised in shaping government policy, and are as relevant in times of crisis as any other.
When public servants use behavioural insights while designing policies, however innovative and/or vital to life and death, there are three key considerations:
- When is it appropriate to use behavioural insights?
- How will they shape relations of power?
- Will people trust the evidence, evaluation and approach taken?
Together, these considerations help us respond to the question of whether behavioural public policies are APT for citizens.