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University of Manchester, June 11 th 2010. NUDGES & PRIMING. From Libertarian Paternalism to Ambient Law. AIM OF THE PAPER. To establish whether the Libertarian Paternalism of Nudges is compatible with Liberty , by looking at the case of Priming.

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University of Manchester, June 11th 2010


From Libertarian Paternalism to Ambient Law

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To establish whether the Libertarian Paternalism of Nudges is compatible with Liberty, by looking at the case of Priming.

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Libertarian Peternalists should attempt to steer people’s choices in welfare promoting directions without eliminating freedom of choice.

They do not want to burden those who want to exercise their freedom... Libertarian Paternalists will not force them to do otherwise – or even make things hard for them.

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Bargh argues that the evidence on Priming constitutes a challenge to Free Will.

If Nudges are analogous to Priming, then Nudges would also constitute a challenge to Free Will.

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Bargh on Free Will

There is no need to posit the existence of free will in order to explain the generation of behavioural inputs, and there is no need to posit free will in order to explain how those (unconscious) impulses are sorted out and integrated to produce human behaviour and the other higher mental processes. The phenomenological feeling of free will is very real, just as real for those scientists who argue against its actual existence as for everyone else, but this strong feeling is an illusion, just as much as we experience the sun moving through the sky, when in fact it is we who are doing the moving (Bargh 2008: 148-149)

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  • 1. Are Nudges like Priming?

    2. Does Priming challenge Free Will?

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Priming effects could be considered the psychological correlate of Nudges: they alter behaviour by altering an individual’s psychology, rather than the environment.

The choice architecture of Priming is more fundamental, because it shapes the agent of choice rather than the object of choice.

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I will describe and analyse Bargh’s priming experiments; bringing out, together, answers to both 1 & 2:

Priming is importantly similar to Nudges;

but Priming is no challenge to freedom;

therefore there is no problem for Libertarian Paternalism (at least from this one quarter)

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“or even make things hard for them”

Libertarian Paternalism is not meant to make things hard for citizens who want to exercise their freedom.

This raises a potential problem for Nudges which we must deal with before talking about Priming.

Isn‘t the all point of Nudges to make it more likely that people will act in accordance with the Nudge?

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Less likely ≠ more difficult

If less likely to Φ means or is explained by more difficult to Φ, then Nudges violate the „hard(er) for them“ constraint of Libertarian Paternalism.

But less likely doesn‘t have to mean or be explained by more difficult:

exit signs on motorways make it more likely that drivers will take the right exit without making it more difficult to drive on – which remains, indeed, easier.

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Effort = penalty

There is another important reason why it‘s a good thing that we don‘t have to think of Nudges in terms of effort to act against the Nudge.

Because then Nudges could be taken to be penalties – just like fines or prison sentences – that the state attaches to practices it condemns.

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Bargh found that subjects who had just participated in a linguistic test which involved an overwhelming amount of words relating to the stereotype of the elderly,

would walk slower out of the building than control subjects whose test did not contain any particular bias or relate to the elderly stereotype.

Similar results were obtained with rudeness, helpfulness, and various stereotypes.

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Isn't awareness the difference between nudges and priming? Nudges can be in your face, while subjects are not aware of being primed with the elderly stereotype.

If you are not aware of the effect of the nudge, then it's like not being aware of the nudge at all – then nudges are like priming and subliminal advertising.

(Still, even if priming were not like nudges, that would be because it is more rather than less liberty intrusive).

Nudges = Priming ?

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  • Are the subjects of Bargh‘s priming any less free?

  • Is their behaviour constrained by the priming?

  • Would they have walked faster had it not been for the priming?

  • Is it harder for them to walk as fast as those in the control group?

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Macrae‘s leaking pen

In a similar experiement to Bargh‘s, Macrae found that minor changes in the environment nullify the effect of the stereotype;

Subjects primed with an helpfulness stereotype would still be as unlikely to pick up a leaking pen as control subjects.

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Bargh´s priming, and its effects, could be compared to an ever-so-slightly up-hill corridor;

Then subjects would also walk slower then on a perfectly flat one;

But we wouldn‘t then say that they were any less free or constrained.

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If we think of NUDGES in terms of the LEAKING PEN and the slightly up-hill CORRIDOR,

Then we can see how NUDGES, just like PRIMING, are no threat to free will.

Does that mean that NUDGES are no threat to FREEDOM either?

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Still, in my examples subjects aren‘t any less free to act against the priming, nor is it harder for them to act against the priming, even though it might be less likely

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What if we made that corridor steeper and steeper, gradually:

- at first they don‘t realize that it is NOT flat;

- then it is steep enough that it becomes obvious that it is not flat;

- then it is steep enough that they can‘t actually walk any faster;

Doesn‘t that affect their freedom? Maybe, but there is a point at which the corridor is so steep that it can no longer be considered a nudge.

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Can NUDGES help Ambient Law be proper LAW?

X is not a LAW if it cannot be broken; NUDGES might be the way to embed legal principles into software while at the same time allowing the possibility that those legal principles be contravened.

Ambient Law

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Bargh, J.A. (2008), 'Free Will is Un-natural', in Baer, J., Kaufman, J.C., & Baumeister, R.F. (eds.), Are We Free? Oxford UP.

Bargh, J.A., Chen, M., Burrows, L. (1996), 'Automaticity of Social Behaviour: Direct effects of trai construct and stereotype activation on action', Journal of Personality and Social Psychology 71: 230-244.

Macrae, C.N. & Johnston, L. (1998), 'Help, I need somebody: Automatic Action and Inaction', Social Cognition 16: 400-417.

Sunstein, C.R. & Thaler, R.H. (2003), 'Libertarian Paternalism is not an Oxymoron', University of Chicago Law Review.

Sunstein, C.R. & Thaler, R.H. (2008), Nudge. Yale UP.


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