In an effort to “tweak” human behavior so people do everything from saving more for retirement to saving more in energy costs, the White House is putting together what it calls a “Behavioral Insights Team” to subtly influence, or “nudge,” people’s behavior, Fox News reported Tuesday.
According to Fox, the administration is working on projects with a dozen federal agencies including the Department of Health and Human Services and the Department of Agriculture.
Supporters claim the team could make government and society more efficient, but critics warn of unintended consequences.
“Behavioral sciences can be used to help design public policies that work better, cost less, and help people to achieve their goals,” a government document emailed by Maya Shankar, a White House senior adviser on social and behavioral science said.
The idea, Fox added, is to “experiment” with various techniques to mold and shape behavior.
Such techniques are reportedly already in use in Britain, a country that already has a “Behavioral Insights Team.”
“Sending letters to late taxpayers that indicated a social norm — i.e., that ‘9 out of 10 people in Britain paid their taxes on time’ — resulted in a 15 percent increase in response rates over a three-month period, rolling out to £30 million of extra annual revenue,” the document said.
The term “nudge,” Fox said, comes from a book by Cass Sunstein and Chicago Booth School of Business professor Richard Thaler, who told Fox the program sounds good. In the book, Sunstein and Thaler argue for what they call “libertarian paternalism,” where policy can be formed in a way to shape the desired behavior.
“I don’t know who those people are who would not want such a program, but they must either be misinformed or misguided,” he added.
Others, however, are skeptical and urged caution.
“I am very skeptical of a team promoting nudge policies,” said Utah State University economist Michael Thomas.
“Ultimately, nudging … assumes a small group of people in government know better about choices than the individuals making them,” he said, warning that sometimes government actually promotes the wrong thing.
“Trans-fats were considered better than saturated and unsaturated fats in the past. Now we know this is an error,” he said.
David Laibson, a Harvard economics professor who studies behavioral economics and is in touch with the people setting up the program, said it is unknown exactly how the team will function, and he expressed hope the program will stay away from controversial subjects, Fox added.
“Let’s say we want people to engage in some healthy behavior like a weight loss program, and then start automatically enrolling overweight people in weight loss programs — even though they could opt out, I’m guessing that would be viewed as offensive … a lot of people would say, ‘I didn’t ask for this, this is judging who I am and who I should be,” he said.
Mercatus Center economist Jerry Ellig warned of a slippery slope.
“If you can keep it to a ‘nudge’ maybe it can be beneficial,” he said, “but nudges can turn into shoves pretty quickly.”
A post at the American Enterprise Institute said similar tactics were used by the Obama campaign in 2008 and 2012.
In both campaigns, AEI said, Obama’s team “employed what Time and The New York Times called a ‘dream team’: a consortium of psychologists and behavioral scientists whose research influenced messaging, daily operations, canvassing, and addressing of rumors.”
The post at AEI suggested “nudging” could be used to promote traditional marriage, boosting high school graduation rates and expanding retirement savings for low savers.
While “nudging” could be used to promote healthy lifestyles and better grades, it can also be used to promote an overarching “nanny state” where government essentially becomes “Big Brother,” infringing on the rights of every American.
- Michael Bloomberg: Government ‘should infringe’ on some individual freedom
- CNN’s Piers Morgan on Bloomberg’s soda ban: ‘People need the nanny state’
- MSNBC’s Mika Brzezinski claims soft drink makers poisoning children
- Judge overturns Bloomberg’s ban on large sugary drinks
- New York Mayor Bloomberg bans 2-liter soda with pizza, some nightclub mixers
- MSNBC host Touré: Government should be paternalistic with more mandates
If you like this article, you can follow Joe on Twitter @jnewby1956, visit and like his Facebook page, or subscribe to receive email updates when a new article is published.
For hard-hitting conservative commentary, please visit Joe’s blog, the Conservative Firing Line. You can also find Joe’s articles at Right News Now, Tea Party Tribune, Liberty Unyielding and PolitiCollision.
Be sure to listen to “Grit and Grace” every Thursday from 6-8 p.m. Pacific Time on Blog Talk Radio, where you can hear Joe discuss current events.