Pour One Out for Nudge’s Forgotten Peers

This article is part of our special issue “Nudge Turns 10,” which explores the intersection of behavioral science and public policy. View the complete issue here.

Anyone who has endured a college reunion knows that there’s a melancholy side to milestones. Marking time has a way of bringing to mind those missing from the celebration, so that every heady remember when gets chased by a soberer whatever happened to…

So it is with behavioral science. On the 10th anniversary of Nudge, it’s worth recalling a few behavioral research programs with which many behavioral scientists have lost touch. Doing so will allow us to tell the story of behavioral science’s last 10 years more faithfully—though hindsight is twenty-twenty, it’s often tunnel vision—and prepare us for the challenges of the next 10.

Two of nudge’s forgotten fellow travelers, think and steer, offer a particularly instructive parable. Both remain obscure despite promising applications and solid scientific grounding, much of it shared with nudge. Both also carried weighty financial and normative implications that went against the grain of the period in which they emerged. This lack of political resonance likely did them in.

Could behavioral science face similar danger in the coming years? It arguably already has in the United States, whose present administration has abandoned its behavioral science team. Nudge’s forgotten peers may be our best guides as the political winds continue to shift.

Like nudge, “steer” aims to change behavior by taking account of quirks and biases. It does so through behavioral education

You likely already know that Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler popularized nudge in a 2008 bestseller. By their definition, nudges are “private or public initiatives that steer people in particular directions but that also allow them to go their own way.” Nudges work because they “take account of” behavioral quirks and biases, like our tendency to stick with a default choice.

For a novel alternative, consider steer. Steer was formulated by British social scientist Matt Grist in 2009, which makes it one of nudge’s earliest peers. Like nudge, steer aims to change behavior by taking account of quirks and biases. It does so through behavioral education. By teaching people about how their minds (mal)function, steer enables them to defuse harmful mental miswirings. (For example, unhealthy habits like smoking become easier to snuff out when their social components are understood.) Steer, in short, aims at “changing the subject” in the philosophical sense of the term, with behavioral science acting as a mirror that reflects imperfections to be educated away.

Another of nudge’s forgotten fellow travelers, think, has similar origins and ambitions. Like steer, think emerged in Britain in 2009, and it, too, attempts to thwart harmful biases and bad decisions. Think looks to deliberation rather than education to correct cognitive distortion. According to Peter John, Graham Smith, and Gerry Stoker, deliberation encourages perspective taking and prosocial choices in contexts like budgeting, volunteering, and recycling:

[Think] holds that citizens, given the right context and framing, can think themselves collectively towards a better understanding of problems and more effective solutions, avoiding thereby a narrow focus on their short-term self-interest. Through deliberation and dialogue, citizens can make informed and better choices about collective actions and the direction of public policy.

Here political scientists will hear a familiar theme: selfish citizens have a fever and the only prescription is more deliberative democracy. Think’s innovation is to buttress the old deliberative view with behavioral theory and empirical methods, like randomized controlled trials. In so doing, think enables us to assess and amplify the impact of debate on civic behavior. One might say that think reads Tocqueville through Thaler—a refreshingly contrarian project in an age when acclaimed behavioral and political scholarship spotlights the limits of democratic citizenship.

“Think” looks to deliberation rather than education to correct cognitive distortion.

As of 2018, the grand ambitions of think and steer remain unfulfilled. Both have received scant scholarly attention over the last decade. Steer has only a few dozen citations on Google Scholar. Think has 400 between an article from 2009 and a monograph published four years later. Think has received some recent airtime from an Australian lecture series that was later posted to YouTube, whose search algorithm places it alongside a Monty Python sketch titled, “Nudge Nudge.” The latter has eleven thousand times as many views.

Although Sunstein and Thaler’s nudge is not quite as popular as Monty Python’s, it far surpasses think and steer. The original monograph by Thaler and Sunstein boasts 11,000 citations on Google Scholar and counting. Nudge also dominates the conversation outside the academy, having become synonymous with behavior-based policy in popular and political discourse. Government and corporate nudge units abound, but a think unit or steering squad is unlikely to be coming to a capital near you any time soon.

Why did think and steer fail to catch on in the academy and policy circles? Why have they failed to launch research programs comparable to nudge?

A full answer is beyond this column, and an airtight one probably impossible. In lieu of proof, consider a hypothesis: think and steer were unsuited to the moment in which they emerged. The post-financial crisis era favored cost-efficient approaches to business and policy problems, especially those that can be cast as a compromise between command-and-control and market mechanisms. Nudge satisfied these criteria from the start: it assumes that choice is precious and the choosers imperfect and uses a light touch to deter bad choices while preserving the freedom to make them. The same could not be said of think and steer, which presume to mold people in the public interest through (costly) commitments to education and debate.

The point is neither that think and steer lacked lucky timing or prudent packaging nor that these account for nudge’s success; nudge succeeded because it is undeniably effective. The point is that good science is not enough. Both think and steer failed to resonate with policymakers and the public despite promising applications and solid empirical grounding. Politics, institutional priorities, and historical contingency likely had a hand in sidelining them through behavioral science’s last 10 years. As we enter the next 10, it’s worth keeping an eye on how institutions and politics shape behavioral science even as behavioral science shapes them.

It’s also worth taking a fresh look at think and steer. Both combat bias, and in today’s hyperpartisan world, that’s surely something worth thinking about.