Nudge: The Final Edition is the most influential book you have never heard of.
Jointly written by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law School professor Cass Sunstein, Nudge applies insights from behavioral psychology to manipulate desired human behavior.
At its best, Nudge is about putting fruit near the cash register in a cafeteria to encourage healthy eating. At its worst, it’s about psychological manipulation.
In practice, Nudge has turned out to be a user manual for how governments can manipulate the population to do their bidding.
Understand the principles behind Nudge, and you will never look at government rhetoric the same way again.
How Governments Manipulate Us
When we think about the government controlling its population, we often think of technology. After all, the Chinese government employs technology to enforce the behavior of its citizens.
In China, cameras track your every move. Banks track your financial transactions. The government scours the internet for unacceptable social media posts.
“Nudging” is similarly sophisticated. But it uses psychology instead of technology.
Specifically, it uses “nudges” to identify – and exploit – our cognitive biases to achieve specific ends… And it does so without us even realizing we are being manipulated.
The United Kingdom is at the cutting edge of just such manipulation.
In 2010, Prime Minister David Cameron set up the Nudge Unit – known formally as the Behavioural Insights Team. Once part of the U.K. government, it is now a private company, but the U.K. Cabinet Office owns one-third of it.
Teams like this one develop carefully calibrated psychological techniques, far more sophisticated than any of us realize.
Although the examples I discuss below are from the U.K., the tactics show how governments across the globe manipulate public behavior.
The “Be a Good Boy” Nudge
Britain exited its COVID-19 lockdown on July 19. But as winter approaches, threats of a new lockdown are percolating in the media.
Consider the language used by one minister: “I don’t want to reverse back to a situation where we have lockdowns. I don’t think it’s necessary… We’ve come so far – we mustn’t allow our good work to be undone.”
Before hearing these words, no one even considered the idea of another lockdown.
After all, vaccination rates are high. COVID-related deaths are low. And testing has become ubiquitous for schools and travelers.
With this intentionally ambiguous phrasing, the minister has seeded the threat of another lockdown in our minds, ever so subtly.
As the health secretary added, “If we all play our part, then we can give ourselves the best possible chance in this race, get through this winter and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones.”
Put another way… You have come far. But be a good boy and behave. Otherwise, Daddy will be forced to cancel Christmas, just like he did last year.
The Reciprocation Nudge
The conservative U.K. government spouts a lot of rhetoric about “personal freedom.” But U.K. health officials are less convinced.
They are keen to introduce COVID-19 passports identifying those who are fully vaccinated. (I even heard one such expert argue that masks should be made mandatory for everyone, forever. After all, the government forces us to wear seat belts.)
By threatening a new lockdown, health officials frame the previously unacceptable idea of a passport as a concession.
If you want to avoid another lockdown and live your life normally, just roll over and accept the less severe option of passports. Of course, you still have the right to choose not to get the vaccine – just don’t expect to travel outside the U.K. ever again.
What if you had COVID-19 and recovered – and have a far higher level of natural immunity than the vaccinated? Sorry, that’s not good enough. You must be double vaccinated.
The “Foot in the Door” Nudge
The U.K. government recently amped up the rhetoric about how its National Health Service (NHS) may come under “unsustainable pressure” this winter.
The government is considering a plan A… and a far stricter plan B.
Plan B already looks inevitable. After all, the NHS is under “unsustainable pressure” every winter, thanks to usual flu outbreaks.
Patrick Fagan – a behavioral scientist at Goldsmiths, University of London – calls this a classic example of the “foot in the door” technique.
“Firstly it makes us accept plan A because, compared to plan B, it looks more reasonable; then, once we have accepted and acclimatised to plan A, we are more likely to then accept plan B, because it is just one extra step on top of the commitment we’ve already made.”
By setting out either one of the plans as a fait accompli, no one thinks to ask whether either plan is necessary in the first place.
The Salience Nudge
Since the beginning of the pandemic, most models of the infection fatality rate have been all but worthless.
In March 2020, an infamous Imperial College study predicted 500,000 deaths in the U.K.
It then revised that number down to 20,000.
Where is that number today? About 140,000.
The point is this: The Imperial College models that drove British policy turned out to be worthless.
Overall, many of the predictions – such as hospitalizations and deaths – have been overstated.
And it’s always the first scary number – 500,000 deaths – that sticks in your brain. The most pessimistic numbers both fuel the policies and justify them. The more optimistic scenarios are dismissed.
It’s important to understand that governments carefully manipulate all communications. And with the Nudge Unit working in 31 countries last year, the impact of this approach is spreading.
The uncomfortable truth is this…
Behavioral scientists across the globe are carefully nudging all of us into what they deem acceptable behavior. And the psychological tools they employ are remarkably sophisticated.
But unlike 99.9% of the world’s population, you are now aware of this.
So consider yourself nudged.
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