‘Nudge’ Back in Fashion at White House

Barack Obama’s newest initiative finds inspiration from social scientists who are trying to transform government throughout the world

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Pablo Martinez Monsivais / AP

President Barack Obama and British Prime Minister David Cameron walk back toward the Oval Office of the White House in Washington, March 14, 2012, after their joint news conference in the Rose Garden.

When a White House adviser sent out an e-mail last month announcing that she was looking to hire social scientists to study human behavior and design public policy based on social experiments, right-wing critics were aghast: Barack Obama was going too far again.

The inspiration for Yale social scientist Maya Shankar’s team, she said in her note, is Britain. It’s in the Old World that the White House has gone looking for something new, calling a gang of consultants in the United Kingdom an inspiration. There, the so-called Behavioral Insights Team has taken a controversial philosophy and found solutions from lowering energy consumption to increasing tax collection.

The squad was established a mere three years ago, following Prime Minister David Cameron’s ascension to power. Referred to in Whitehall patois as the nudge unit, the team was inspired by the 2009 bestselling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by University of Chicago professor Richard Thaler and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein. Cameron’s political mandate was simple: influence British policies by constructing cheap, shrewd and local solutions to social problems across governmental agencies.

(MORE: The 2009 TIME 100 Finalists: Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein)

The nudge unit appears to have succeeded where one of its inspirations could not. During the first three years of the Obama administration, Sunstein led the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs where he was charged with approving every new regulation the government issued based on cost-benefit analysis. Sunstein has written that his efforts were hamstrung by a political climate suspicious of his ideas. Last year several important regulations were halted before the presidential election and Sunstein’s subsequent book, Simpler: The Future of Government describes the difficulty of new thinking into government. With an entire team to focus on streamlining costs and regulation across the government, the new team is aiming to improve on Sunstein’s record.

Working at the intersection of psychology and economics, the nudge unit in Britain has tackled a number of problems ranging from reducing car theft by offering containers to de-clutter garages to increasing repayment of court fines through a text message system.

Simple social experiments circumvented difficult-to-pass legislation, altered peoples’ behavior and saved money.

“It’s about making it easy for people,” said Thaler, who advised on the BIT during its inception. “No one knows the answers to every problem, and not every idea works, so it is vital to test.”

For instance, in consulting Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs on income tax collection, the unit found that most people living in the town or postal code where errant taxpayers reside had already paid their taxes. After testing three different messages in notification letters, repayment jumped by an estimated 15 percent.

(MORE: Why Obama’s Regulatory Czar Makes Liberals Nervous)

In 2011, the nudge team focused on a governmental subsidiary to insulate attics in order to reduce energy consumption. Realizing its failure had nothing to do with the discount but rather the hassle of organizing attics, the team ran a trial to provide a loft clearance service, and though costlier, participant rates tripled.

The experiment led to a partnership with B&Q (the Home Depot of the U.K.) to assist with unwanted items on the condition that attics are insulated afterward. After identifying more than $1.5 billion in extra revenue in the next five years, the unit is now running trials in Essex job centers, varying the type of questions and interviews jobseekers experience upon each visit in order to improve the unemployment rate.

The team announced plans to restructure as a public-private partnership, allowing it to take its now 15-member staff global to consult on nudging tactics. The new partnership will take effect this fall, Owain Service, BIT’s deputy director, told TIME. While the group intends to hire more staff, nine members will remain devoted to the Cameron’s cabinet.

Within three short years, the unit has drawn international attention, serving as an example to foreign governments like Canada, France and the New South Wales government in Australia, where BIT has embedded a staff member. France and Canada are exploring ways to incorporate the nudge squad’s ideas. The nudge squad has inspired like-minded reforms in Saudi Arabia and Singapore as well.

In Denmark, Pelle Guldborg Hansen, chairman of the Danish Nudging Network and CEO of iNudgeYou.com, has been working with the Danish Business Authority and Consumer Authority to implement nudge thinking. One success? The group claims to have decreased littering in Copenhagen by 46 percent. Hansen has consulted on an organ donation bill that will go before parliament this year, advocating for what Thaler and Sunstein refer to as “mandated choice,” or allowing an individual to choose to donate upon a prompt.

(MORE: Cass Sunstein on How to Simplify the Tax Code. Simply)

“The crises that we face right now are really caused by human behavior,” said Hansen. “Of course we cannot change human behavior, and we don’t wish to, but behavioral science can help us better understand and help us do the best we can now.”

Not everyone has welcomed these ideas. Critics in the U.K., like the online magazine Spiked, decry the ethics of nudging as a manipulation of choice, a gimmicky effort that leads to a “nanny state.” Labour MP Luciana Berger has referred to it as Cameron’s “vanity project.” Despite the opposition, the new public-private structure will allow the team to sign a longterm contract with Whitehall, leaving them in place no matter who is in power. A polarized Washington could prove to be more of a hurdle for the new U.S. team.

“I’m not going to pretend that everything we do is wildly successful,” said BIT’s Service. “The whole point of testing is to find out whether or not it does work, and if it does, how effective is it?”

Still BIT’s enthusiasm for influencing behavior appears to have won fans from Copenhagen to the Washington.

“If they sold stock, I would buy them,” iNudgeYou’s Jespersen says of the BIT. “Demand is going to be high for the next 15 years and governments all over the world are going to look to them. They’re the best guys to deliver it because they’ve already proven they can do so.”

MORE: Nantucket Project: Small Island, Big Ideas for Fixing Our Economic Future


Thanks for asking. Well, just went and saw The Millers movie, started out each day with We're gonna have a good time on my HUSTLE +Flow sdtrack.....moved past that into the outtro from 2 live crews as nasty as they wanna be album: the EFF shop!....got that write sins not tragedies on the Freak a leak sympathizers deliberating the warm water and cold coca cola side of life.....re introduced myself to the OLD S.T.P and flies in the VASELINE........and now i am gonna get a resume into two places later near noontime...saw Blue Jasmine, Dennis Miller crossed my mind...made MOON filled with rob lowe and peter gallagher....still remember Vincent Gallo...and I'm out.


Drugs are the answer. Legalize them.


“Of course we cannot change human behavior, and we don’t wish to..."

Of course we can change human behavior (that's the very history of human progress) and, if you don't wish to, you're a f#ck!ng lunatic. Human psychology and behavior sits at the nexus of how we wish to be and how we fail to be. We ignore the methods by which we can understand how we can change our thinking and behavior at enormous and often tragic cost.


To think what a family feels.....

1. When they cannot take a child to hospital because of poverty

2. When they cannot sent a bright student to college because of high fees

3. When a college graduate cannot find a job

4. When putting food on the table takes food-stamps

5. When organizations and management discriminate at work

...... is not difficult to comprehend. People feel miserable.

And, then to think that people's minds can be manipulated to make believe the good-feeling, is the most humiliating and absurd project. It is adding insult to injury. There may be less that the government can do, but whatever that is, if it lacks a principle-centered approach is merely an elitist figment of imagination.

Whoever these out-of-touch people are, it is time they descend from their ivory tower existences. Perhaps, a few elitist consultants may fantasize making some quick money, but it will be far removed from the reality, for those living the hardships of day-to-day life.


@shepherdwong"Of course we can change human behavior ..." 

of course, it worked so well in the Soviet Union 

what's next? 5 years plans?

there will always be an endless supply of m0rons(:rolleyes)



@seizeabe How ever did you reach the conclusion that this project is about making miserable people feel more happy? It's about changing behavior, not about manipulating with emotions


@seizeabe If you spend more than one hour a week watching TeeVee then you have absolutely no business complaining about manipulation. The fact that your distrust is itself a result of manipulation is utterly lost.


Your sister's friend is in jail for soliciting.


@reallife @shepherdwong Why are you cons so fixated on the Soviet Union?  If you don't like the way America is changing then go there and move in with Snowden. It's just as backward as you are. 


@reallife "there will always be an endless supply of m0rons..."

I think that the American Civil War proved that the supply isn't endless (present company accepted). But at least we stopped keeping slaves.


From the article

“The crises that we face right now are really caused by human behavior,” said Hansen. “Of course we cannot change human behavior, and we don’t wish to, but behavioral science can help us better understand and help us do the best we can now.”

Change behavior ?


Very ingenious!

Espousing a cause that gets paid taxpayer dollars, to make people in real life hardship, feel good about their state.

How about spending that time, effort and "money" on paying for the education of good students who don't have that money?


You must be meaning the efforts that...

1. Give billions $ tax loopholes and cuts to individuals and companies

2. Allow companies to getaway with stateless income

3. Tax $50K at 24% and $50billion at 10%

4. Jail a child that pockets a candy in the store and provide $billion scammers bailouts in Bns

5. Allows investors to speculate and gamble with pension funds and get a paltry fine

It must be really altruistic to educate poor people of the evils of drinking less soda

And, educating those earning $15K an year to save for retirement, college and eating healthy!

When people have never experienced genuine hardship, ridiculous theories evolve!


@seizeabe Getting people living hardship to nevertheless feel good about themselves is a billion dollar industry at the heart of the entire American economy. Your concern over Government efforts to get people to do the right thing more readily is severely misplaced.