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Is ‘Nudging’ Really Enough? With things like burgers and electricity, we often need a shove

Behavioral economists employ “nudges” that push us in a “more responsible” direction. To do this, they tweak the decision-making environment, altering the way we interpret options. One example would be changing the default for drivers to donate organs (opt-out versus opt-in). Another nudge is to place fruit at eye level in school cafeterias – an idea that can dramatically increase sales.

For policy makers, however, trying to apply nudges to societal problems such as energy consumption and obesity are proving tricky.

Jonah Lehrer offers two reasons:

There are two problems with reforms inspired by behavioral economics. The first is that the nudges of policy makers must compete against the nudges of the marketplace. A fast-food meal might contain a frightening number of calories, but it’s also delicious. (Fat and sugar taste good.) In these cases, the nudge that appeals to our irresponsible side often wins.

The second problem is that such nudges are ill-equipped to solve thorny societal problems. Take energy consumption. As the behavioral economists George Loewenstein and Peter Ubel have pointed out, the most effective way to reduce energy consumption is to increase its cost through higher taxes on carbon. That solution, of course, isn’t popular or trendy, which is why most politicians aren’t interested. Nevertheless, such an old-fashioned fix, rooted in the assumptions of classical economics, would be far more effective than a redesigned electricity bill. Sometimes, we don’t need a nudge. We need a shove.

It’s never easy to apply the latest theory of human nature to actual human beings. Just because we have a better understanding of how the mind works doesn’t mean we can always get it to work the way we want.

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Jonah Lehrer is the author of How We Decide and Proust Was a Neuroscientist .