Nudging Our Lives Away


This week a public-spirited “leaker” shone a light on the secretive world of the Whitehall Nudge Units when we learnt that the Behavioural Insights Unit (the official term for Nudge) want shoppers to be hit with a meat tax in order to help the environment. Also the nudgers are advocating the increase of the “relative availability” of plant-based food. Indeed children could be provided with “sustainable defaults” in schools and shoppers could be given vegan recipes with new pots and pans. A government spokesman responded by saying it was a research paper and not official policy.


Where do these Nudge Units come from and what do they do?

The first one was established by David Cameron and was invited into the very nerve centre of 10 Downing St. It was and still is headed by a behavioural “scientist” called Professor David Halpern who came across from a quango called NESTA (National Endowment for Science, Technology and the Arts). The PM was persuaded that if he wants to be more successful in getting the general public to do certain things they could be nudged to do so without realising it. So successful has this been that most Whitehall departments now have their own Nudge Units aka, the anti-meat eating boys and girls, and indeed many countries have also set up their own nudge operations.

Halpern & co would assert that what they are doing is for the common good and this is well described in a paper by Dr Bjorn Vollen:

“The policy concept of pushing people towards better choices without limiting their liberty is labelled with what seems to be an oxymoron: Libertarian Paternalism. Paternalistic, because it embodies the idea that a choice architect has the right to alter people’s behaviour, in order to improve their lives (e.g. make it longer, healthier). Libertarian, because freedom of choice has to be preserved at the same time. If someone wants to smoke, eat a lot of junk-food or choose a badly designed pension scheme, he won’t be stopped or hindered by a libertarian paternalist. “

But, start peeling away the onion and this excerpt from an article entitled “Nudge Units and Data-Driven Nudging” reveals what’s really going on here:

“There is often a lack of transparency in nudging as it tends to be more effective when people are unaware of being nudged. In this case, people are not given a fair opportunity to resist, ignore or reject nudges, but are nevertheless being subjected to unwitting persuasion. According to the criticism, nudging organisations employ various strategies to steer people in specific ways and hence individuals’ resulting actions are not genuinely their own, but reflect the choice architecture (Hausman and Welch, 2010). Since data-driven nudging is able to influence cognitive and behavioural patterns with greater accuracy, individuals are thus left with even less room to retain their autonomy (Viljanen, 2017). Data-driven nudging may further draw on “dark patterns” which promote a certain behaviour with design practices and thereby disadvantage users (Rieger and Sidners, 2020)”

No doubt if Goebbels was alive today he would call himself the first behavioural scientist.

The Covid pandemic has provided a feeding frenzy for the Nudge Units and our current mind-bending PM has taken to them like a duck to water. Laura Dodsworth in her 21.10.21 piece for the  Telegraph brilliantly takes apart the latest Covid nasties from Bojo’s nudgers. This time it started (inevitably) with the dreaded Prof Neil Ferguson appearing on Radio 4’s Today programme on the 19th October declaring:

“Nobody likes having their freedoms curtailed  by measures but it is prudent to be cautious in everyday interactions and wearing masks certainly helps that: it reminds people we’re not completely out of the woods yet”.  

Oops, the nudgers won’t have liked him owning up to the mask con but no matter the next day NHS leaders follow up by urging the Government to implement its Covid “Plan B” immediately, to which Kwasi Kwarteng, the Business Secretary, chirps he doesn’t want to see hard won gains reversed into another lockdown. As Dodsworth:

“Until hearing Kwarteng’s words, you might not have known that there was even a risk of another lockdown. But now the idea has been seeded in your mind, ever so subtly”.

Next, Sajid Javid holds the first Downing Street briefing in a month and solemnly warns Covid infections could soon hit 100,000 per day. Cue the Telegraph front page with a big picture of Javid and the headline blaring, “Have your booster jab to keep your freedoms”. Oh, and  by the way, says Javid,  if we all play our part we can get through this and enjoy Christmas with our loved ones. Nudge, nudge. Dodsworth joins all the dots here:

“The threat of lockdown hangs like a Sword of Damocles. Will we or won’t we? It seems unlikely that the public and businesses could be persuaded again to cancel festivities for a second year. Regardless, the threat of lockdown might be leveraged to justify the introduction of Covid passports, in what is known as a “reciprocation nudge”, where we appear to be given a concession (the freedom to see our friends and relatives) as long as we roll over and accept a less severe option (Covid passports). It all makes me feel rather like a child: eat your vegetables kids, or you’ll lose your right to dessert”.

Meanwhile, away from manipulating our minds over Covid, the nudge units, as we saw at the start of this piece, are busily figuring out how they can nudge us into saving the planet. No doubt speeches by the great and the good at the soon to be upon us COP26 jamboree will see the nudgers in their element. Expect those of us who don’t sign up to electric cars, heat pumps (NB, I’m in the clear as I installed one 15 years ago!), etc to be progressively vilified as the mainstream media is nudged along and schools teach their pupils to show up parental miscreants.

Manipulation of its public by politicians and heads of state is, of course, as old as the hills but that manipulation has usually been overt, as in the 20th century’s preference for governments’ messages to be put across through film, television and poster campaigns. Instead nudge units are perfecting the power of auto suggestion; an influencing of one’s own attitudes, behaviour, or physical condition by mental processes other than conscious thought. This is vile. When will we realise the Government’s Nudge operations are playing us for dumb fools?

On the outside wall of The Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s 1984 could be found the slogans “FREEDOM IS SLAVERY” and “IGNORANCE IS STRENGTH”.  Looks to me as if that’s what the nudge units are aiming at.

The City Grump has spent some 40 years in the City of London. He started as a stockbroker’s analyst but after some years he decided he was too grumpy to continue with the sell side of things so he moved to the buy side and became a fund manager for the next 20 years, selling his own business in the 1990s. Post the millennium, he found himself in turn chairing a stockbroker, a financial PR company, and an Exchange. He still keeps his hand in, chairing a brace of VCTs and investing personally in startups. The City Grump’s publications are available here.