We need to know when government is trying to alter our behaviour

You think you’re always the one making your own decisions? Think again.

For some years now, governments have been using a new tool that allows them to guide our choices furtively, without the need for regulation, coercion, or taxation. It’s the nudge, a technique that mobilizes the cognitive biases of individuals, which is to say the unconscious and emotional part of the human mind, to influence our behaviour.

A simple example: putting healthier foods at eye level in grocery stores and relegating junk food to lower shelves, which we generally pay less attention to.

At the federal level, the Privy Council Office has equipped itself with a unit of experts called Impact Canada to propose solutions based on nudges. It was an important player in orchestrating the government’s response to the pandemic. Among many initiatives, the unit launched a program in March 2020 to help support the government’s effort to promote vaccination and other anti-COVID behaviour recommended by public health experts.

The Privy Council Office has also highlighted its intent to support the government response to climate change, leading a large, multi-year program of work on climate action that applies insights and methods from behavioural science to promote specific types of behaviour.

Another technique increasingly popular with governments is the default option for organ donation: people are now assumed to be organ donors unless they de-register by explicitly requesting not to be.

Nudges aren’t necessarily a bad thing. The problem is that there is no oversight mechanism for this new method of governance. Fiscal measures and new laws have to go through the parliamentary process and be debated by our elected representatives, but nudges can be adopted and imposed by the bureaucracy without the public ever being informed.

How governments are trying to exploit people’s psychology and emotions needs to be discussed. Decision-makers are susceptible to the same cognitive biases they use nudges to try to exploit. There is no guarantee the policies they would implement are more legitimate than the choices citizens would have made on their own. Whether unconsciously or not, it is possible that those who put these nudges in place will do so in order to satisfy their own interests or embrace their own world views, especially given that their understanding of the values and preferences of their fellow citizens is often quite limited.

In the absence of clear guidelines and accountability structures, there is a real risk that nudges will be used to promote particular political options or agendas rather than for the benefit of the population as a whole.

To limit potential abuses, the use of nudges should be subject to the traditional legislative process. Those proposing them should have to reveal what they intend and publicly defend their initiatives. In order to ensure transparency, an official public registry should be created to keep track of nudges — even the smallest ones. Redress mechanisms should also be set up so people can express their views and, as the case may be, oppose the abusive use of this tool by public decision-makers.

It would also be good to have measures in place to limit the use of default options, as these take advantage of the natural tendency of individuals to be passive and can therefore lead them, in spite of themselves, to accept policies they don’t necessarily approve of.

Finally, each nudge should have an expiration date, so that its relevance and legitimacy can be periodically re-evaluated. This would keep practices that could violate democratic and ethical principles from persisting.

Nudges can offer a more flexible method of governance than traditional policy methods. But they also have the potential to become a way of manipulating the public. We need to properly monitor this tool, like any other, to protect our democracy and preserve the freedom of choice of citizens.

Nathalie Elgrably-Lévy is a Senior Economist at the MEI and the author of “Nudge: A New Way of Governing That Needs Oversight.” The views reflected in this opinion piece are her own.

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