Monday, 13 April 2015

A Nudge in the Right Direction? – Tim Veater – [“Nudging” is the current hot idea for government. ]

A Nudge in the Right Direction?

“Nudging” is the current hot idea for government.

It can try to influence public opinion in a variety of ways, ranging through
“education”, advertisement,  subliminal messaging, propaganda, even coercion. It
has been one of the main functions of religion down through the ages.

But what happens if people stop believing in religion or even God? What happens
if people become disillusioned  in politics and their political masters? What
happens if no-one accepts traditional hierarchy and authority any longer? What
if we all become anarchists?

Maybe this is why Thaler’s theories, which undoubtedly contain accurate
interpretations of human behaviour and the factors that influence it, have been
grasped at by government. It offers a solution to an increasingly sophisticated,
informed and sceptical public, because it provides a methodology of influencing
its behaviour along preferred lines, without people ever being aware they are
subject to it.

Over half a century ago Vance Packard drew our attention to the “Hidden
Persuaders” in advertising, utilizing and applying recently discovered Pavlovian
and Skinnerian psychological techniques. Indeed, even more sinister subliminal
messaging techniques by interspersing flickering, momentary pictures that could
only be perceived subliminally, often plugging in to basic psychological
motivators such as sex or greed or ego.

On a more mundane level we have all become aware of the pervasive supermarket
techniques of flowers at the entrance, the smell of fresh bread, of  eye-level
sweets at the check-out, all applications of “nudge” theory. So we should not be
wholly surprised that government is trying to catch up.

However government is a very different thing. It retains for itself power over
the individual to an incredible extent, including permanent loss of liberty or
even life. Power to take money from private bank accounts without reference to a
Judge, is but a latest  example, that some would see as an ominous extension of
state power – an indicator of where it wants to go. So perhaps we should not be
surprised by its current interest in “mindfulness” and “nudging”.

Most  ideas can be good or bad. “Nudging” us to take healthy options rather than
unhealthy ones would be hard to disagree with. But any powerful tool in the
hands of government needs to be discussed and displayed for all to see. We need
to know how and for what purpose it is being proposed. It needs to be carefully
scrutinised and controlled. That at the end of the day will be our only
protection from its pervasive and disturbing implications. END.

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