The Golden Rule of Nudge

Nudge unto others as you would have them nudge unto you.

Do not recommend to apply incentives to others that you would not want for yourself.


I was reading this article by William Davies about Britain’s Kafkaesque immigration policies.

The background, roughly, is this: Various English politicians promised that the net flow of immigrants to the U.K. would decrease. But the British government had little control over the flow of immigrants to the U.K., because most of them were coming from other E.U. countries. So they’d pretty much made a promise they couldn’t keep. The only way the government could even try to reach their targets was to convince people currently living in the U.K. to leave. And one way to do this was to make their lives more difficult. Apparently the government focused this effort on people living in Britain who’d originally come from former British colonies in the Caribbean, throwing paperwork at them and threatening their immigration status.

Davies explains:

The Windrush generation’s immigration status should never have been in question, and the cause of their predicament is recent: the 2014 Immigration Act, which contained the flagship policies of the then home secretary, Theresa May. Foremost among them was the plan to create a ‘hostile environment’, with the aim of making it harder for illegal immigrants to work and live in the UK . . .

It’s almost as if, on discovering that law alone was too blunt an instrument for deterring and excluding immigrants, May decided to weaponise paperwork instead. The ‘hostile environment’ strategy was never presented just as an effective way of identifying and deporting illegal immigrants: more important, it was intended as a way of destroying their ability to build normal lives. The hope, it seemed, was that people might decide that living in Britain wasn’t worth the hassle. . . .

The thread linking benefit sanctions and the ‘hostile environment’ is that both are policies designed to alter behaviour dressed up as audits. Neither is really concerned with accumulating information per se: the idea is to use a process of constant auditing to punish and deter . . .

And then he continues:

The coalition government was fond of the idea of ‘nudges’, interventions that seek to change behaviour by subtle manipulation of the way things look and feel, rather than through regulation. Nudgers celebrate the sunnier success stories, such as getting more people to recycle or to quit smoking, but it’s easy to see how the same mentality might be applied in a more menacing way.

Nudge for thee but not for me?

This all reminds me of a general phenomenon, that “incentives matter” always seems like a good motto for other people, but we rarely seem to want it for ourselves. For example, there’s lots of talk about how being worried about losing your job is a good motivator to work hard (or, conversely, that a secure job is a recipe for laziness), but we don’t want job insecurity for ourselves. (Sure, lots of people who aren’t tenured professors or secure government employees envy those of us with secure jobs, and maybe they think we don’t deserve them, but I don’t think these people are generally asking for less security in their own jobs.)

More generally, it’s my impression that people often think that “nudges” are a good way to get other people to behave in desirable ways, without these people wanting to be “nudged” themselves. For example, did Jeremy Bentham put himself in a Panopticon to ensure his own good behavior?

There are exceptions, though. I like to stick other people in my office so it’s harder for me to drift off and be less productive. And lots of smokers are supportive of polities that make it less convenient to smoke, as this can make it easier for them to quit and harder for them to relapse.


With all that in mind, I’d like to propose a Golden Rule of Nudge: Nudge unto others as you would have them nudge unto you.

Do not recommend to apply incentives to others that you would not want for yourself.

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