Reverse nudge theory — when the many nudge the few

Nudge Theory, popularised by Thaler & Sunstein, proposes that our decisions can be biased by relatively small changes in choice architecture. While we might be well intentioned, our human fallibility and modern environments sometimes require ‘choice architects’ to nudge us back on the path toward individual and collective wellbeing. Whether used for good or bad, Nudge Theory is most often applied downhill – the few (state or commercial players) nudge the many (citizens or consumers).

I would like to propose that Reverse Nudge Theory might be a good term for nudging uphill. For governments and corporations are also made up of individuals – and these individuals are equally prone to political, economic, and career forces which may get in the way of them making decisions that would be in our best interests.

Such reverse nudging is not a new endeavour of course. The formation of labour unions, the democratic process, and ‘voting with your wallet‘ are all good examples of this. So while well-intentioned choice architects nudge us, perhaps we need to be equally creative in nudging them back for their (and our) own good.

That is from Benjamin Vincent at Journal of Brief Ideas.


The archetypal example of standard Nudge Theory is organ donation. If people are made to opt out rather than opt in, then there are more organ donors. This is a small change—essentially a rewording in a drivers' license form—that leads to a big effect—essentially many more lives saved or improved.

What might be an example Reverse Nudge? I don't think labor unions or democracy are good examples since they're not small changes: they require lots of coordination to put in place. Neither is voting with your wallet, since it's a small change leading to small effect.

The best example that comes to my mind for what might be the Reverse Nudge is taking out advertising during Fox & Friends to nudge Donald Trump. A relatively small change—a small group can coordinate to buy ad time—might lead to a big difference—perhaps non-trivial change in US policy. I don't know if this has actually worked, but I've seen it considered seriously. The bigger point is that this is how one should be thinking of the Reverse Nudge.

Right, based on the excerpted paragraph it doesn't sound like Reverse Nudge has anything to do with nudges. Labor unions are a reverse nudge? We have an entire federal department that focuses on labor issues including unions; I'd call that a lot bigger than a nudge.

The only "nudge" that I familiar with regarding labor unions is that workers must affirmatively opt out to prevent having a portion of their union fees be used for "non-representational" activities, which are supposedly kept totally separate from "representational" activities. So the nudge is the union (few) nudging the workers (many), not management.

I think the Fox network knows where its audience lies and wouldn't run ads that were critical of Trump on the network. So, nice try, but I doubt you're going to get there in the end.

Remember how Volkswagen had all those deliberately fraudulent 'clean' diesel cars? There were attempts at class actions in Australia at least, and the law firms noted that no commercial TV network would run their ads because Volkswagen is one of the largest purchasers of TV advertising time.

Fox News has definitely run ads critical of Trump, though there have been some controversies about their refusal to run certain ads.

If your goal is to influence Donald Trump via an ad on Fox & Friends, you probably don't want to run an ad critical of him. Most likely, you think you have a policy that he might be interested in, but you think that this policy, for whatever reason, is underrated in his circle. So you nudge him through an ad.

So, for example, say you are a conservative group who thinks the federal government should remove subsidies to state schools. So you might take out an ad arguing about the wasteful spending of state schools in the hope that you nudge Trump to take the idea more seriously.

Public service announcement: everything you've read able defaults and organ donation is probably bull. Jason Collins has been all over this:

A really dumb paragraph that sounds profound.

The point of nudges is that they affect choices but don't change incentives or choice sets. "Reverse nudge theory" is just that choices change with incentives. Whataboutism like this is sophmoric no matter what, but if you're going to engage in it, you might as well actually have the two things match.

Incidentally, it is amazing at how the commenters here who think themselves somehow escaped from the evil indoctrination of the ivory tower are the ones who fall most easily to this kind of pseudo-profound bullshit.

I agree with this take on it.

TC subscribes to a broader definition of "nudge" (virtually anything non-coercive), which muddles matters and "reverse nudge" just muddles matters even more.

yes, there's a general libertarian derangement about nudges somehow being equivalent to "THE GOVERNMENT THINKS I'M STUPID AND NEED TO BE TOLD WHAT TO DO." this requires them to smirkingly point out that who will nudge the nudgers or make some other sophomoric statement that misses the point completely. (like this one!)

I don't buy it.
The problem is that the higher a person is placed the less attention they pay to information from below.
Gentle reminders or unobtrusive nudges are simply ignored.
The US electorate had to nominate Trump as the republican candidate for president and then elect him just to get the elites' attention and the elites completely discount this information and are serenely continuing with the policies that the electorate is trying to gentle nudge them out of (eternal war in the middle east, eternal large scale low-skilled immigration, eternal taxpayer funded support to financial interests)
It's a lot easier to nudge downward, when going up it would probably take something much more drastic than merely electing Trump...

Part of the problem here is the electorate (actually the smaller share of voters) sent Trump to stick it to the elites without realizing he doesn't give a shit about them, and is himself one of the elites.

It was his election that was the nudge, many had no faith in his ability and/or willingness to carry out any of his promises but assumed that the elites might realize how upset a large (growing?) part of the population is becoming with them once he became the nominee.

When nudges don't work then usually there is the potential for an escalation to shoving (and worse).
Let's hope it doesn't get that far....

Fair point.

I practice this theory everyday, although I did not know it was reverse nudging.

Every time I meet a “public servant”, say at a dinner-party or a barbecue, be that a teacher, a cop, a nurse in a public hospital, or some misterious office dweller shuffling paper around, I immediately let them know very clearly that he/she is a parasite living on my and other people stolen money, and I start to behave in the most obnoxious possible way. Alas, the case is that usually it is me to come across as the asshole, at least according to my wife. But I still hope that they experienced some level of discomfort, at least a bit, that increased the cost of working for the enemy. I invite everybody to do it, especially if you are single and don’t have to suffer the half a hour tirade after it. The good thing is, after a while you don’t get to be invited a lot to boring barbecues and dinner-parties.

'I immediately let them know very clearly that he/she is a parasite living on my and other people stolen money'

Amazing. Do you say the same thing to the people in charge of the water supply and sewage systems? And one hopes you never drive on any of the roads that were built using stolen money, and of course, that you never buy any products that make use of those roads, otherwise, you might just be engaging in a bit of hypocrisy, using the benefits of roads while aware they were built through thievery.

There are places where people do not worry about their tax money being used for water and sewage systems. It seems as if cholera prefers such places.

Of corse I use the water and the sewage system of the government. It’s a State Monopoly, enforced with guns. I cannot shower without water and I can’t crap in my living room. The same applies to roads. I would much prefer using infrastructure voluntary built and paid by individual agents, as it has been the case (in part, when the State did not interfere) for thousands of years.

I am sorry, I don’t like you and your likes, but don’t take it personally I just want out, it is called the right of disassociation, implicit in the right of association. But of course, your band will never let me go, you need my money, what you call taxes when you steal it.

Once that there was communism around, you western statists used to ask how come that in western countries it is possible to establish a voluntary communist enclave, while in the communist states it was not possible to put a “capitalist” enclave? I ask you the same today: why don’t you let me and people like me secede and live the way we want, of course in our rightfully purchased land? If we, as you keep saying, end up killing each others Lord-of-the-flies style, do not worry, it’s none of your business, just take the land back when we are all dead.

There's no one keeping you here, can't you emigrate to a place with a lower (or even no) tax burden? Disassociate to wherever you like.

Fact is you need us and our society that provides you with everything in your life including your customers more than we need your taxes. The narcissism of the anarchist is strong with you.

There should still be the freedom to pay more for worse outcomes unless there is a specific reason not to. For example, if someone wants to opt out of public water supply they should be permitted to take this expense upon themselves -- perhaps they would like to mine water from air using some variety of new technologies, for example.

Health care is an example of something where the freedom to pay more for worse average outcomes is fairly limited in most wealthy countries other than the USA. While indeed this does have a negative effect on the overall freedom of some handful of wealthy individuals, the extent of unfreedom in having very large numbers of people who are unable to enjoy the freedoms and work productivity associated with good health leads to people generally accepting the cheaper and higher quality approach without too much complaint.

Naturally, this does not stop people from wanting yet more for yet less.

I give your marriage another 2 years tops. You're quite a catch.

I do believe there is a very genuine existence of such beliefs in the USA.

It can also be noted that it is very consistent with breeding generic negative perception and/or distrust of government. Which is fine (very important, even, in order to uphold a critical mass to restrain excesses of individuals and/or collectives acting from positions within governmental entities), but it's also potentially very useful for foreign entities with potentially hostile intents.

Isn't that the point of Church/Religion? The many nudge the few not to have kids out of wedlock, not to fall into apostasy. Problem is, spontaneous order mobs/congregations quickly find out that it helps burning/lynching one of the heretics from time to time to make your point.

Doesn't the premise of a reverse nudge invalidate the concept of normal nudging?

You only need reverse nudging if the decision makers need to be nudged in the first place. And if they need to be nudged, then presumably they shouldn't be in the business of nudging others.

While we might be well intentioned, our human fallibility and modern environments sometimes require ‘choice architects’ to nudge us back on the path toward individual and collective wellbeing.

So we are fallible, but they are not? I am sure that they think so. But is the evidence all that good? I would think that most intellectuals have been wrong about the major issues in the Twentieth century. Most Western intellectuals outside the English speaking world were on the side of the Soviet Union and before that many sided with the Nazis. Many English-speaking intellectuals, especially after 1968, also sided with the Soviet Union and its allies - or worse. Chomsky defending the Khmer Rouge for instance. The only organization that has been consistently right has been the Catholic Church. They do a lot of nudging. Doesn't seem to work though.

I would like to propose that Reverse Nudge Theory might be a good term for nudging uphill. For governments and corporations are also made up of individuals – and these individuals are equally prone to political, economic, and career forces which may get in the way of them making decisions that would be in our best interests.

Indeed. That sounds eminently sensible. We should turn off the NFL. Georgia should deny United their tax break. We should all re-tweet MeTwo until Hollywood reinstates the Hayes Committee.

Good luck with that, anonymous internet bloviator.

There had long been ties between intellectuals in Moscow, Paris, Geneva and environs, and some other places. I do not see how this implies that they were pro-Soviet.

So while there is certainly truth to what you say, the above false opposition between communism and democracy (recall, democracy is as opposed to authoritarianism, and communism is as opposed to capitalism) would lead those heavily exposed to Red Scare propaganda to believe that support for a comparatively large involvement of government in economic and/or social activities would necessarily imply being pro-Soviet.

For example, a) supporting the rights of labour unions and shareholder unions to have similar legal authority to organize and negotiate, or b) supporting a degree of post-market-income redistribution, or c) risk pooling through employment insurance or health insurance organized through government, does not mean that one necessarily supports having death squads, prison or Zersetzung orchestrations against those holding political views contrary to a head of state.

So peer pressure is now called nudging?

Literally everything is nudging now.

Except Nudging. That is now assault.

Vincent's acute observation about the direction of nudging reminds me of R. H. Coase's maxim about externalities -- they are a reciprocal problem!

Perhaps you lead a sheltered life, Mr Cowen. Or was your use of "nudging uphill" meant to be a bawdy joke?

Come to think of it (nudge, nudge, wink, wink) a bright young student should write a dissertation explaining how the posts on Marginal Revolution are filled with double entendres and lewd allusions. Indeed "Marginal Revolution" itself contains the letters of "vagina". That should be quite enough proof to satisfy, say, a House Committee of Democrats.

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