Tuesday, March 7, 2017

Nudge Versus Trust In Modern Politics

Maybe you're encountered the concept of "Nudge," in which framing choices in various ways can push people toward doing certain things without directly forcing them to do those things. In a relatively innocuous example, you might notice that in a cafeteria setting, people choose more vegetables when vegetables, instead of desert, are placed right up front, and as the cafeteria director you might decide that is a Good Thing.

Nudge grows out of the theory of behavioral economics. Behavioral economists noticed that not only are people irrational, they are systematically irrational -- they fail to do things that seem in their otherwise best interest, because they don't have great impulse control, or because they're not good reasoners, and so on -- and they fail in predictable ways. Nudging exploits that predictability to shape outcomes.

I consider myself a progressive and a lefty, and you might think that this political orientation and the idea of nudging would go hand in hand. Progressives want to bring about change on big complicated things like protecting the environment, where collective action is really difficult -- maybe nudging people toward energy conservation would be a good idea? Progressives often see people as influenced by context and culture, rather than as atomic and autonomous individuals creating their own self-made way in the world -- if people are affected by context and culture, why not try to make that work for us rather than against us? And examples like the cafeteria speak to me. I am just the kind of person who wants to be nudged toward eating more vegetables, and I'm just the kind of person who recognizes that nudging could work.

But nudging is often creepy. For one thing, it's described as "value-neutral" -- nudgers are just helping you do what you would do if you weren't so systematically irrational. But this is just implausible. How do you know what what people would do if they weren't so systematically irrational? In fact, you have no idea.

As we've discussed before, the person who eats a lot of desert may be irrational. But they might also be rationally satisfying a strongly felt preference for cake over the things that you get from foregoing cake. People have priorities other than living longer, and as Paula Poundstone says: What part of Ring-Dings make my life worth living do you not understand? As has been pointed out (e. g. in this book by my friend Mark White), the risk is that policy makers are projecting their own sense of what matters onto the situation.

As time went on, and the more I saw nudges in action, the more suspicious I became. And then a couple of weeks ago I read this New Yorker article about the use of behavioral economics and nudging in the context of the Flint water crisis. When I first saw the topic, I was like, WTF? The people who behaved badly in the Flint water crisis weren't the citizens. They were the government agencies and representatives who made a terrible decision to divert the water sources to save money, then covered it up and lied about it, then blamed one another, then failed to do anything to fix it. Was the author going to talk about nudging top-level decision-makers? Now that would be interesting!

No, of course that wasn't it. The article was about how you could create structures that would get people to do things like get and believe up to date information, and act on that information by doing things like changing filters and so on.

I guess filter changing reminders are reasonably innocuous in the circumstances. But, as the author of the article kept bringing up, the real problem between the citizens and the government Flint wasn't about information and facts and "rational behavior." It was about trust. The citizens didn't trust official representatives to tell them the truth about the water situation. And FFS, why would they? They'd been lied to and manipulated from this end to that. And now someone shows up saying they're from the government and they're there to get you to do some things rather than some other things and believe this thing rather than that?

Reading this story I just felt what a profound disconnect there seemed to be between the nature of the problem and the proposal on offer. Trust was destroyed. And the situation in Flint is still fucked up. And yet people want to use brain science to figure out a "strategy" for getting the citizens to do one thing rather than another? 

There's a fascinating exchange toward the end of the piece, when the behavioral team meets with a local activist. There are immediate cultural disconnects -- like where the activist offers to share some special fried chicken and the team members decline because they're vegetarians. But eventually the activist asks the team to just talk about how they're feeling since the election, and the main point person sort of breaks down and talks about how shitty and frightened she feels. And this is what creates some connection, and some trust, between them. Because it's people being honest with each other.

I think trust -- and its erosion -- has played an important and complicated role in a lot of recent politics. Obviously people have started getting their information from different sources, and it's often been noted that the body of shared facts and background we can all rely on in talking with one another is getting smaller and smaller.

This is often described as if some people, and not others, are just failing to judge in accordance with the evidence, willfully ignoring the facts in favor of their own opinions. And sure, there is some of this going on. But at a deeper level the problem is also a problem of trust. People don't trust the same sources as sources of evidence and facts, and they don't trust each other. 

It's frustrating to me to hear people talk about the lack of shared belief like it's a relatively straightforward (if difficult) problem -- where people just have to be brought around to proper belief formation. Maybe we can all get better at how we figure out what to believe. But this start to this process won't be a top-down nudge style step. In fact, a top-down nudge-style step can be just the thing that erodes trust, evoking, as it does, an I-know-the-story-and-you-don't kind of mood.

I don't know what the answer is, but I think it will have to involve openness, honesty, and maybe even mutual vulnerability -- things that nudges don't really have anything to do with.

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