Last September, President Obama issued an executive order officially endorsing the nudge. The order represented a major victory for the behavioral science community. What was once an esoteric talking point amongst rouge economists has since become a widely popular research topic, ripe for application outside academia in domains such as public policy. It’s as if we’ve finally acknowledged something that a lot of people have known for a long time: that we are not mythical Econs who maximize utility but real Humans who sometimes screw up.
The question is: Does the government have the right to nudge? Critics argue that nudges undermine freedom and autonomy, even when they are disclosed or implemented with good intentions. Proponents point out that the government—along with other people and private businesses—nudges inevitably. The belief that we inhabit “neutral choice environments” is a myth.
The problem with this debate, like so many others, is that there are more than two sides. That false dichotomy brings me to Matthew Crawford’s The World Beyond Your Head: On Becoming an Individual In An Age of Distraction. Crawford, a motorcycle fabricator with a Ph.D. from the University of Chicago in political philosophy, says that in addition to debating the ethics of nudging we need to also examine broader cultural forces, such as the introduction of credit in the early 20th century, that gave rise to nudges in the first place.
His argument begins with the jig, a tool familiar to metal- and woodworkers, which he defines as a “device or procedure that guides a repeated action by constraining the environment in such a way as to make the action go smoothly, the same each time.” If a carpenter needs to cut two-dozen boards to the same length, he won’t measure and cut each board separately. Rather, he will slide each board under a band saw until it hits the jig, ensuring a perfect cut each time.
At first glance, the nudge and the jig appear to be very similar. Both involve shifting the burden of attention from System 2 to System 1 by manipulating the environment. However, the jig typically involves skilled practitioners performing relatively tedious tasks while the nudge does not. If the jig engrains habits and refocuses attention, the nudge simply helps people make better decisions, usually without them even realizing it.
Consider arithmetic, a kind of mental jig. If you need to figure out the product of 18 and 12, you could multiply 18 by 10 to get 180, and then multiply 18 by 2 to get 36, and then add 180 and 36 to get 216. Calculating the product of 911 and 356, however, would be nearly impossible. The solution is not to focus harder—the burden on working memory would be too much—but a different method altogether, one that breaks the problem down into a series of smaller calculations and relies on pencil and paper. “With this simple expedient,” Crawford says, “we vastly extend our intellectual capacities.”
Here’s where things get interesting. Crawford introduces the concept of cultural jigs. Much like a jig diffuses information through constraints in the environment, a cultural jig diffuses knowledge and practical wisdom through “linguistic, social, political, and institutional constraints.” A jig helps people cut, saw, and weld; a cultural jig helps people make judgments and decisions, typically by ingraining useful conventions and norms.
Crawford sites the concept of thrift in early America, which emerged in tandem with the Protestant ethic. According to this view, the goal was parsimonious spending over conspicuous consumption—accumulating wealth was an indication that your life was on track, not a signal that you could indulge. As Crawford puts it, “The debtor cannot speak frankly to the man he owes money to; he must make himself pleasing and hope for continued forbearance.”
The invention of consumer credit (and the subsequent norm that carrying debt was a normal aspect of adult life) dismantled thrift as a cultural jig. Crawford hypothesizes that today we are “very fat” and “very prone to divorce” because other cultural jigs also disintegrated. How? He points to the “liberating and deregulating efforts of the right and left,” which in turn dramatically increased the demand for self-regulation. We now stay out of debt, in shape, and in wedlock not through religion, social norms, or shared customs but something much less potent: human willpower.
This is the perspective Crawford uses to understand the nudge. He is not an opponent (he actually endorses the nudge) and he is wise enough to realize that even if government doesn’t nudge corporations certainly will. His point, simply, is that “Getting people to save money through administrative nudges such as the opt-out 401(k) plan is best seen not as a remedy for our failure to be rational as individuals, but as an attempt to compensate for the dismantling of those cultural jigs we once relied on to act (and think and feel) in ways that support thrift.”
It’s worth taking this point seriously for at least two reasons. The first is that if government wants people to spend wisely, stay in shape, and stay married, it should focus on promoting the right cultural jigs, not just the right nudges. That’s a much broader debate about the role of government, of course, but it’s a debate worth remembering the next time you think about the ethics of nudging. The second relates to a central theme of Crawford’s book: attention.
Before he opened his motorcycle shop in Virginia, Crawford worked in a think tank in Washington D.C., where he was trained to “project an image of rationality without indulging too much in actually thinking.” He believes, correctly, that in a world containing more and more demands on attention, we risk forgoing the opportunity to fully submit ourselves to an activity, to see our efforts directly impact the world and to receive immediate feedback from it. He prescribes becoming absorbed in a skilled activity as a remedy for becoming intellectually bankrupt at work, insisting that “knowledge work” is much more physically monotonous than we think.
Many administrative nudges exist because demands on cognition have become so unrelenting that even easy tasks, such as answering an email, trigger tremendous bouts of stress. Don’t even think about someone actually taking time to change the default from “Yes” to “No.”
There’s no doubt, to be sure, that the administrative nudge is not only a good idea but a smart way to save money and even a few lives. In 2013 a team from Columbia business school led by Eric Johnson tested a nudge to help people sign up for health care plans that could save customers and taxpayers approximately $10 billion annually. Last year Melissa Knoll and a team at the Social Security Administration created a nudge that could mean a difference of tens of thousands of dollars for beneficiaries.
However, as you skim through the forms at the DMV, it’s worth pausing to pay attention—not just to the content of the form, but to how you pay attention in general. Crawford isn’t a Luddite yearning for simpler times. His goal is to suggest that some administrative nudges might be band-aides on a deeper cultural wound that is not healing, and could even be widening.