Monday, October 12, 2015

Big Brother is Nudging You

This article originally appeared in the 'Science vs Politics Fight Club' section of Beyond, my free newsletter for lovers of science and science fiction. Sign up here -

We’re all used (and some may say inured) to companies trying to subtly influence us and the decisions we make. Internet algorithms mercilessly track our keystrokes and ‘just happen’ to drop relevant adverts into our Facebook stream. Amazon recommends reads based on titles we’ve bought or just browsed, and shows like The Gruen Report provide an inkling of just how much megacorps are putting into prodding us to consume their products.

And now the government is at it. In 2010, UK Prime Minister David Cameron set up the ‘Nudge Unit’, charged with a mission to improve public services and save money. The unit was so successful, it’s role has now greatly expanded – and in an interesting move, as of February 2014, it became a private company jointly owned by the UK’s Cabinet Office, NESTA an ’innovation charity’ and the unit’s own employees.

The unit uses behavioural science to subtly encourage people to ‘do the right thing’, like eating healthier food. And it’s proved very successful. The NSW Government set up its own Nudge Unit where trials indicated they could save $11 million in public hospital costs and $4 million in more prompt payment of parking fines.

Language is everything and ‘nudges’, of course, sound like innocuous things. But is it really that harmless? Any application of science can be used for good or ill. Nuclear fusion can destroy or power a city. Readers of SF can easily see the dangers. The ‘newspeak’ of Orwell’s 1984 was perhaps the ultimate form of mass manipulation, constraining vocabulary to the point where users were unable to express certain concepts, or the meanings behind those concepts were twisted beyond recognition. And you can look at any number of SF stories where behavioural science has in effect been weaponised and unleashed on a helpless public. Behavioural science isn’t immune to abuse and, as David Halpern of the UK Nudge Unit says, ‘the question of who nudges the nudgers is one that will need … all of us to decide’.

Find out more about UK Behavioural Insights Team at

Science: one | Politics: one.

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