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threat is not incentive

A Threat Is Not an Incentive


Nudge: “to prod, touch, or coax gently.” 

Having accumulated a couple of speeding tickets, you get a notice from the Ministry of Transportation, which begins: “You may believe that you are a safe driver most of the time; however, your driving record reflects momentary lapses in driving judgment.”

Intrigued at these lapses in otherwise good judgment, which the Ministry of Transportation seems to know about, you read on. 

“Remember to focus on your driving at all times when behind the wheel; even a minor distraction can result in injury or death. Driving is a privilege and we believe you can make the choice to become a safer driver. This could mean avoiding distractions and not being in a rush while driving. For information on how to improve your driving, go to….. Safer driving is your responsibility and your choice.”

You feel educated by a caring group of people. You’re encouraged: You have a choice to do better. 

And when you’re reminded, “Only a few drivers have accumulated more points than you,” you want to be better because everyone else is a better driver than you are. 

You’ve been nudged. 

It’s been called “libertarian paternalism.” Nudge Theory comes from Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. A supposed counter to traditional forms of coercion, Nudge focuses on the designing of choices for others so that they make decisions towards “positive outcomes.” 

Under this theory, “the choice architect” might likely say things like, “I’m so excited to give people an opportunity to buy in!” 

Rather than messages related to power and control, nudgers use words like offer, give space, enable, facilitate, inform, discuss, and options

Nudge has some other key elements that might look familiar: highlight that the process is easy and done in small steps. Emphasize the fear of missing out (FOMO), or “loss aversion.” Emphasize your place and responsibility in the group.

There should be a clear and specific call to action that is consistent and hard to miss: Six feet apart, for example, with diagrams in case you don’t know what six feet is. 

Make sure there’s a sense of agency; you want people to feel like they can make changes today.

And to minimize resistance, use small incremental “nudges,” which are less threatening. “Two weeks to flatten the curve,” for example, is a nudge. 

Typically, nudge policies are developed by a “Behavioural Insights Team.” The feds have one. Our province (Ontario) has one. The WHO has one (whose Head has been a Communist Party member for 40 years). 

So, here’s the traditional method of getting people to do things: It’s approaching bedtime, and I want my kids to put away their toys. Using the traditional method, I might stand in the doorway and say: “It’s 7:30 and the toys are everywhere. Get them picked up.” 

When my kids don’t, I start with the warnings. I raise my voice. I warn about doing dishes tomorrow. I deprive them of candy. 

But Nudge works like this: “Hey guys, it’s 7:30 and we need to get the toys picked up.” Then I get down on the floor. “Ok, let’s play a game: boys against the girls” (or whatever non-binary term works for you). “Two boxes. Whoever gets the toys in first, wins!” 

Or, I could ask a question like: Do we pick up the toys and make room for the game I’m going to play with you tomorrow?

Now my kids want to do it. They’ve been respected. There are lots of incentives and it’s fun. 

Of course, eventually, my kids will catch on, and as they mature they could very well feel manipulated. 

Nudge started out as an ethical concept. It’s supposed to help us treat people with respect and dignity while allowing those being nudged a sense of agency—of real, and actual agency. People are to be given time and space and treated like adults, like equals. Communication should be open. Nothing withheld. No pressure. No time limit. 

In the scenario above, I am down on the floor with my kids. Nudge is supposed to be egalitarian: no edicts from on high. 

There should be transparency about the tools you are using, and the public should have equal access to those tools. 

And when the nudge doesn’t work—when you don’t get buy-in—you do not default to coercive power. No, you re-examine your “choice architecture.” You admit that the problem could be just as much with you. Ethically speaking, using nudges instead of traditional methods should also force us to reflect on our own propensity to use coercion and how all of us try to take agency away from others. 

Second most important: nudges are not mandates. Nudges are meant to be punishment-free; otherwise, it’s just plain old traditional coercion. 

And most important: It was never meant for manipulating populations.

So, our present leadership is a bit confused: Nudge does not include threats. None of this wagging your finger “there will be consequences” talk. When you opt to threats, you’ve just used Nudge to soften people up so that you can then use traditional coercion more effectively. The population is lulled and then blindsided. An ethical leader would have fessed up in the first place: “This is where we want you to go.” 

But with our government, the Nudge has become a powerful manipulative tool, and worse, it has facilitated a slithery duplicitous mindset. Sure, gone are the Leave-It-To-Beaver days of traditional threat and reward methods with all of its “toxic masculinity” and “patriarchy;” now we give citizens opportunities to want to behave, to “make the right choice.” But all-too-often we get nothing more than the illusion of choice, where they still set the parameters: Three vaxxes to choose from, instead of just one. 

There would have been pushback with just one. Journalists might have checked the conflicts of interest, with just one. 

And in these Hunger Games days where we citizens must be protected from ourselves, our leaders spout absurdities like: “The mandate is working; we have a high vaccination rate” and “Canadians stepped up and did the right thing!” 

Which really means: Our threats are working. Canadians have done great at complying. 

Our PM gets to gloat over policies that are just as draconian as the worst of his far-right opponents. Fancy socks or not, your feet still smell. 

Nudge has offered a new language and a new kind of permission, not to use overt coercion that might be debated in the open political theatre, but rather the subliminal, the backroom conniving machinations of behavioural science. Somehow, entrenched in this softened language without any hard edges, and all nodding to each other, leaders have come to believe that when they use words like agency, choice, education, and incentives, that that is what they are actually offering. 

We take the bait and are lulled into thinking there’s a group of enlightened people who care. Then the jackboots hit Wellington Street and “anti-vaxxers” are tear gassed and beaten. 

“I never forced people.” They were given choices.

With Trudeau’s recent press conference in which he claimed to have never coerced people into compliance, we have entered a doublespeak world worse than anything the “fake news” and “truthiness” era of Trump could have imagined, where words neither signify anything permanent nor offer any real meaning on which the powerless can rely. 

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