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Wednesday, January 10, 2018

Failing better

Erik Angner
BPP Blog, the companion blog to the new journal Behavioural Public Policy
Originally posted June 2, 2017

Cass R. Sunstein’s ‘Nudges That Fail’ explores why some nudges work, why some fail, and what should be done in the face of failure. It’s a useful contribution in part because it reminds us that nudging – roughly speaking, the effort to improve people’s welfare by helping them make better choices without interfering with their liberty or autonomy – is harder than it might seem. When people differ in beliefs, values, and preferences, or when they differ in their responses to behavioral interventions, for example, it may be difficult to design a nudge that benefits at least some without violating anyone’s liberty or autonomy. But the paper is a useful contribution also because it suggests concrete, positive steps that may be taken to help us get better simultaneously at enhancing welfare and at respecting liberty and autonomy.


Moreover, even if a nudge is on the net welfare enhancing and doesn’t violate any other values, it does not follow that it should be implemented. As economists are fond of telling you, everything has an opportunity cost, and so do nudges. If whatever resources would be used in the implementation of the nudge could be put to better use elsewhere, we would have reason not to implement it. If we did anyway, we would be guilty of the Econ 101 fallacy of ignoring opportunity costs, which would be embarrassing.

The blog post is here.