Nazi Nudging

by on October 5, 2010 at 11:07 am in Economics, History | Permalink

Dan Ariely probably isn't doing his field of behavioral economics any favors when he points out that before he pushed, Hitler was not averse to using a nudge. Still, this 1938 voting ballot which reads, "Do you agree with the reunification of Austria with the German Reich that was enacted on 13 March 1938 and do you vote for the party of our leader; Adolf Hitler?; Yes; No,” is quite amusing as an early example of primitive nudge technology.


1 londenio October 5, 2010 at 11:30 am

The word “nudge” is quite comical in this context. It feels more like a “push” or a “shove”?

2 Dominique_cz October 5, 2010 at 12:32 pm

Quite friendly signal.

3 anon October 5, 2010 at 12:46 pm

“I suspect this ballot would cause the Nein vote to be overcounted: it’s easier to punch out the entire chad.”

My guess is that the ballot used Scantron bubbles, not punched holes. By making the “Ja” bubble larger and more costly to fill in, the ballot design enabled Hitler’s supporters to provide a honest signal of loyalty to their leader.

4 jk October 5, 2010 at 1:16 pm

I like how people (on the internet), even if you are making a valid point, are quick to say “Godwin’s Law!”

5 Bill October 5, 2010 at 2:09 pm

Nudge is not what it is unless you want to make everything into nudge.

I see that you do want to make everything fall in the category of nudge so as to discredit the concept, so you might want to ask yourself, what tactics are YOU using to invoke social sentiment by using this example.

Does this promote rational discussion–no, it is just using this as a way to cut off discussion and put something in a category that makes rational discussion difficult.

One of the ways that you deal with nudges you don’t like is to expose them.

As in the Wicked Witch of the west, when you expose them to water, they melt.

6 Bill October 5, 2010 at 2:15 pm

Sort of like pointing out during a debate that you wear a US flag lapel pin, and your opponent did not.

7 Barkley Rosser October 5, 2010 at 2:28 pm

An amusing comparison is the “nudge” used in the old Soviet Union voting system, which did exist. As with this, the choice was between “yes” and “no” for the official party ballot of candidates, no other options, and everybody had to vote by law.

So, one would go to the voting place. Nice ladies would be there with cookies and flags and stuff. You had to ask for either a “yes” or a “no” ballot from them (no secret ballot). You would give them the “yes,” if that is how you were voting, upon which you got cookies and other goodies and big smiles, blah blah. If no, you had to take it over to this other location in the center to put it in there, and, of course, no cookies or whatever. So, plenty of nudging going on there.

8 Bill October 5, 2010 at 2:52 pm

Thaler’s comments on this issue:

BuzzFlash: Nudges by your definition are well intentioned. Benevolent nudgers “are self-consciously attempting to move people in directions that will make their lives better.† Can you contrast that to a more nefarious choice architecture?

Richard H. Thaler: Nudgers CAN be well-intentioned but can also be self-interested. We are being nudged all the time by marketers, religions, spouses, etc. Sunstein and I did not invent nudging! Our goal is to give benevolent nudgers an instruction manual. The evil nudgers have already mastered most of these tools, alas.

BuzzFlash: You use a term that by your own admission is off-putting — “libertarian paternalism† — to describe your belief that choice architects can and should help nudge people to do what’s good for them. Did you write Nudge, in part, to replace that term with a friendlier frame?

Richard H. Thaler: We actually love the term libertarian paternalism, but we might have kinky tastes. Still, we recognize that “nudging” rolls off the tongue a bit easier, and if that helps get the message across we are happy to use it.

9 Andrew October 5, 2010 at 3:10 pm


The very nature of nudging is to use the frictions of behavioral economics to shape the outcomes of decisions, not reducing the frictions of making the decisions. I may be wrong, but that’s why they are creepy, and that’s why your “transparency” idea doesn’t cut it. Who doesn’t know about 401(k) matching (if their company does it). We wouldn’t have the bandwidth to keep up with or rally opposition to bad nudges precisely because it is all about putting the manual of frictions in the hands of the rulemakers.

10 Bill October 5, 2010 at 3:27 pm

Andrew, I don’t believe I disagreed with your comment to the extent you are now agreeing with Thaler, except about the creepiness angle. I don’t creep out if the gov’mt tries to discourage teenage pregnancy, violence in the school, bullying, encourages savings and parental responsibility, compliance with the law and other such behaviour, as it reduces the costs of social welfare or law enforcement.

As to Cialdini’s books, everyone reads Cialdini’s books, including saints sinners, moderate republicans, libertarians, students in social psych and marketing. That is not an argument to say that salespersons (one group) reads a book and therefor….I once read (fill in the blank) and … [If you are seeking to encourage or discourage someone from reading a book, insert title at the fill in the blank position in the preceding sentence]. We should read a variety of books.

On the nudge issue, I think you can have rational discussion when you straight up discuss that the nudge is about–not whether, as a category, this type of speech or conduct should be banned or curtailed without reference to the objective.

11 adam October 5, 2010 at 4:01 pm

So do I understand correctly now that ‘nudge’ is like ‘money’ or ‘gun’? I.e. having no innate morality, and that only the use to which it is put has a moral dimension as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’?

And libertarian macroeconomists think one is likely to win a Nobel prize in economics for using this concept for soft enforcement?

12 Eliot October 5, 2010 at 5:07 pm

Behavioral economics is a scientific enterprise. How can reality discredit it?

13 Yancey Ward October 5, 2010 at 9:00 pm

Nudgers CAN be well-intentioned but can also be self-interested. We are being nudged all the time by marketers, religions, spouses, etc. Sunstein and I did not invent nudging! Our goal is to give benevolent nudgers an instruction manual. The evil nudgers have already mastered most of these tools, alas.

JR has already beat me to it, I see, but can one assume from this that marketers, religions, and spouses are self-interested evil people in Thaler’s estimation?

14 adam October 5, 2010 at 10:14 pm

I truly appreciate Bill continuing to debate this issue. I think were he and I, and probably other commenters, part ways is how the whole ‘nudge’ phenomenon is being painted as a holier-than-thou, leftist SWPL dogood by its proponents.

I am a physician, and when discussing surgery with my patients, I use nudging, as I see it, all the time. Some patients, after having risks and benefits of a procedure explained to them, will ask ‘what do you advise me to do, doctor’. When I think they need surgery, I will nudge them towards it by starting with the benefits, the less serious risks, and finally the most serious risk, then getting back to the benefits and ending with ‘I can not advice you, it remains your decision’; when they usually will agree. And when I think they do not need surgery, I nudge them the other way using similar techniques. So yes, I do decide for other people, for their own good.

But I am not a government.

As I explained before, to me ‘nudging’ is neither good nor bad. If companies, individuals do this, it can have good or bad effects, but in the end I can go somewhere else as a patient or customer.

But Thaler and Sunstein propose to use nudging as a government tool to get people to do things they have no stated preference for, for their own good. Then, as I citizen I have no choice anymore, I will be nudged whatsoever. I cannot go somewhere else.

And that is why the original post is so devastating for Thaler, et al.

15 Gil October 6, 2010 at 12:11 am

Thanks for the advice at the end, but on my reading the ubiquity of nudges isn’t the issue here, nor is the legality of the objectives the nudger hopes to achieve. How is it not cutting off discussion to limit the conversation to a debate about the ends of the activity in question? When focusing on the objective, don’t lose sight of or fail to think deeply about the means.

16 hhairstraightener October 6, 2010 at 6:42 am

So do I understand correctly now that ‘nudge’ is like ‘money’ or ‘gun’? I.e. having no innate morality, and that only the use to which it is put has a moral dimension as being ‘good’ or ‘bad’?
Thanks for sharing!

17 Bill October 6, 2010 at 9:09 am

JJN, Someone is still reading the comments. Good focus on the constitution and the rule of law which authorizes or limits such conduct.

18 Yancey Ward October 6, 2010 at 11:43 am

If you read no other comment, read that of mbk.

19 LightningJoe October 6, 2010 at 12:43 pm

You could draw an even bigger circle in the space on the left and caption it any way you wanted.

20 mbk October 6, 2010 at 10:54 pm


brilliant joke, and sad. Either way I suspect some friendly uniformed helpers at the ballot box ensured you couldn’t make a mistake even without your glasses on.

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