CHAPTER 2: DEFINITIONS, CATEGORISATION
AND THE ETHICS OF BEHAVIOUR CHANGE INTERVENTIONS|
2.1. In this Chapter we look at the terminology
associated with behaviour change, including "nudging".
We also discuss some factors that may be relevant to determining
whether a behaviour change intervention will be publicly and ethically
Definitions and categorisation
THE "SCIENCES OF HUMAN BEHAVIOUR"
2.2. There is no single science of behaviour
change. A number of scientific disciplines, including neuroscience,
psychology, sociology and behavioural economics, contribute to
what is known about human behaviour and we refer to these sciences
collectively as the "sciences of human behaviour". Behaviour
change interventions apply findings, drawn from these various
sciences, in order to influence human behaviour.
A "BEHAVIOUR CHANGE INTERVENTION"
2.3. A wide variety of types of policies affect
the way people behave.
Table 1 (which builds on the Nuffield Ladder of Interventions)
sets out a possible taxonomy, including examples, of different
types of intervention. Some witnesses argued that the concept
of "behaviour change intervention" could not usefully
be defined on the ground that all government policies include,
to a greater or lesser extent, some element of intended behaviour
change. Whilst we acknowledge
the force of this point, and encourage policy makers always to
consider the behavioural implications of a policy, we have focused
on those interventions where the principal intention is to change
people's behaviour. We have referred to these interventions as
"behaviour change interventions".
Table of interventions
Note: * Demonstrates how regulation of businesses
might be used to guide the choice of individuals, thus distinguishing
it from regulation which restricts or eliminates the choice of
BEHAVIOUR CHANGE AND NON-REGULATORY TOOLS
2.4. Although several Government officials who
gave evidence to us recognised that a broad range of policy instruments,
including regulation and taxation, could be used to change behaviour,
some suggested that the Government's emphasis on non-regulatory
tools had led to a tendency for behaviour change to be linked
only to non-regulatory interventions.
Gemma Harper, Chief Social Scientist at the Department for the
Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), for example, told
us that in her experience, within central government, "behaviour
change is very much used as a shorthand for alternatives to regulation
and fiscal measures".
The evidence of Oliver Letwin MP, Minister of State at the
Cabinet Office, also reflected this ambivalence. At one point,
he used a broad definition of behaviour change intervention when
he suggested that legislation was a "form of achieving change".
But, later, he contrasted "behavioural science" and
"behavioural insights" with regulation,
suggesting that behaviour change policies included only non-regulatory
interventions. We consider the implications of this uncertainty
in the Government's approach to behaviour change in Chapter 5.
WHAT IS A "NUDGE"?
2.5. The Government's non-regulatory approach
to behaviour change has often been described as "nudging".
The Cabinet Office's Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) (see Box
7, page 32) is referred to in the media as the "nudge unit",
and "nudge" has been used in Government policy documents,
Ministerial statements and debates in the House of Commons.
2.6. The word "nudge" was originally
used in the context of influencing behaviour by Richard Thaler
and Cass Sunstein.
They define a "nudge" as
"... any aspect of the choice architecture
that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding
any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.
To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap
to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level
counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not."
2.7. "Choice architecture" refers to
the environment in which an individual makes choices. Changing
the way options are presented or altering the social and physical
environment can make it much more likely that a particular choice
becomes the natural or default preference. Individuals may often
be unaware of the effect that changes in the choice architecture
have on their individual choices and actions. In these circumstances,
nudges can be understood to have influenced the non-deliberative
aspect of a person's choices or actions (see paragraph 3.4 below).
Businesses often seek to prompt non-deliberative actions by their
consumers through, for example, by setting default portion sizes
or using product placement in films and television programmes.
2.8. We received differing accounts of the Government's
use of "nudge". For example, the Sustainable Transport
White Paper contrasts "nudging" with anything that forbids
or restricts choice, and Norman Baker MP, Parliamentary Under
Secretary of State for Transport, equated "nudging"
with a broad range of non-regulatory interventions, such as the
provision of bus and train timetables. Mr Letwin, however,
suggested that "nudging" had to involve "prompted
choice" and therefore excluded informational and promotional
forms of non-regulatory intervention.
2.9. In our view, interventions which may be
described as "nudging" are not synonymous with, but
rather are a subset of, non-regulatory interventions (see Table
1). We have drawn this conclusion because, first, not all non-regulatory
interventions are nudges in the standard understanding of the
term. Nudges prompt choices without getting people to consider
their options consciously, and therefore do not include openly
persuasive interventions such as media campaigns and the straightforward
provision of information. Secondly, "nudges" themselves
may be provided through regulatory means. For example, businesses
may be required by regulation to provide a particular choice architecture
in order to "nudge" individuals. Dr David Halpern,
Head of the Cabinet Office's BIT, acknowledged this latter point
when he said: "of course you can construct regulation to
Similarly, Anne Milton MP, Minister for Public Health at
the Department of Health (DH), said: "you can use regulation
to nudge people".
Interventions and ethical acceptability
2.10. Many witnesses accepted the presumption
that the state should develop and pursue policies which are of
benefit to individuals and to the wider population. Consequently,
they should aim not only to provide conditions in which individuals
can achieve those benefits but also act to make it easier for
them to do so. This position allows for governments to intervene,
for example, to tackle obesity and reduce harmful alcohol consumption
on the ground that individual health is a good which the government
have a responsibility to promote.
2.11. Even when a government is justified in
taking steps to tackle a problem, the measures used to resolve
the problem may not necessarily be judged ethically acceptable.
The evidence highlighted two factors which might bear on the acceptability
of an intervention. First, the degree to which an intervention
intrudes into an individual's life. Secondly, the extent to which
an intervention is covert. Witnesses also related the ethical
acceptability of an intervention to the extent to which it is
popular with, or welcomed by, the public.
2.12. Some witnesses argued that the most intrusive
interventions would require the most justification and should
be deployed with particular care because they restrict or eliminate
choice. The Government
said that they "aim to apply behaviour change theory only
in ways that minimise intrusion".
This corresponds to the widely held classical liberal view, reflected
in parts of the European Convention on Human Rights, that certain
individual freedoms are intrinsically valuable and should be protected
unless there is strong justification for doing otherwiseas,
for example, the curtailing of freedom imposed by a prison sentence
is justified because it prevents criminals from causing harm to
others. The importance of protecting freedoms is a reason for
testing the proportionality of proposed behaviour change interventions,
but does not provide any single metric by which proportionality
can be judged. As a general point, we accept that regulatory interventions
which restrict choice may be judged more acceptable if there is
good evidence that they will be effective in tackling an urgent
issue which is having significant detrimental effects on the population.
2.13. In seeking to avoid interventions that
restrict choice, the Government have focused on interventions
which enable and encourage certain choices.
Several witnesses argued however that interventions which enable
and encourage choice by affecting non-deliberative processes,
such as "nudges", also involve ethical issues because
they involve altering behaviour through mechanisms of which people
are not obviously aware.
This raises an interesting question about the extent to which
nudging is compatible with the Government's commitment to "extend
transparency to every area of public life".
It also highlights the potential ethical implications of the widespread
use of nudges by commercial organisations.
2.14. Professor Luc Bovens, London School
of Economics and Political Science, suggested that there were
two sorts of transparency which might be relevant to behaviour
change interventions. Transparency might mean telling people about
an intervention directly, or it might mean ensuring that a perceptive
person could discern for themselves that an intervention had been
implemented. He suggested that the latter, weaker form of transparency
distinguished nudges from subliminal messaging, which was widely
considered to be ethically unacceptable on the ground that it
was wrong to influence people in a way that they are incapable
of identifying . Professor Bovens concluded that ethical
acceptability did not require governments to explain that an intervention
had been implemented, especially as this fuller sort of transparency
might limit the effectiveness of the intervention. On this view,
an intervention would be acceptable provided those who were nudged
had the ability to discern its implementation (even if in practice
they almost never did so).
2.15. The line which divides an intervention
that it is impossible to discern from one that it might be possible
to discern, but almost never will be, is imprecise. We note however
that this weaker form of transparency is all that is required
of businesses when they seek to influence our behaviour through
nudges. Retailers do not, for example, tell consumers that they
have designed their stores in a way that is intended to encourage
purchasing of specific types of product, such as confectionery.
ETHICAL ACCEPTABILITY AND "PUBLIC PERMISSION"
2.16. Some witnesses suggested that the ethical
acceptability of an intervention was related to its level of public
acceptance, or popularity, or even the degree to which its use
was based on "public permission".
We are not convinced by this link. For example, levels of public
acceptance for interventions might improve after their introduction,
as happened for example with the ban on smoking in public places.
Moreover, the very fact that the degree to which the public accepts,
or welcomes, an intervention can change over time suggests that
this is likely to be determined by assumptions about the impact
of the intervention which had perhaps initially been based on
incomplete information. Consequently, it may be ethically acceptable
for governments to introduce a measure even though it is unpopular
if there is strong evidence that it will be effective and beneficial.
For example, the ban on smoking in public places was not ethically
unacceptable despite the fact that it initially had only modest
levels of public acceptance.
2.17. It is important to note, however, that
a measure which does not have public support is, in general, less
likely to succeed. Professor Mike Kelly, Director of Clinical
Excellence at National Institute of Health and Clinical Excellence
(NICE) drew our attention, for example, to the adverse impact
of using pricing as the primary mechanism of control of alcohol
in Scandinavia, and
Ms Milton appeared to agree when she observed that "the trouble
with nannying is that it can be hectoring, and produce the opposite
DISTINCTION BETWEEN INDIVIDUALS AND BUSINESS
2.18. The discussion so far has focused on interventions
which affect individuals. It was suggested to us that the arguments
for the ethical acceptability of an intervention are different
if it applies to businesses rather than individuals. Professor Thomas
Baldwin, Professor of Philosophy, University of York, summed
this up as follows:
it is individual persons whose status
as rational agents is a fundamental value of liberal society;
but commercial organisations are not rational agents of this kind
So they do not merit the kind of liberal freedom from interference
which applies to individual persons, and there is, therefore,
no principled objection to regulating them in restrictive ways.
What they can nonetheless demand is that they be regulated only
in ways which are effective, well-motivated, and fair; and they
can argue that if the ends sought by regulation can be achieved
by voluntary codes, then this approach should be tried first.
So here too there is an intervention ladder which starts from
voluntary codes and ends up with restrictive formal regulations.
But in this case the relevant considerations are primarily pragmatic
rather than principled."
We agree with Professor Baldwin insofar as he
points out that different considerations should apply to interventions
which affect individuals directly than those which affect commercial
organisations directly. The latter are more likely to be pragmatic,
rather than ethical, considerations.
2.19. Though governments must consider the acceptability
of any behaviour change intervention, there is no set of rules
against which to determine whether or not an intervention is acceptable.
Rather, ethical acceptability depends to a large extent on an
intervention's proportionality. Proportionality can be determined
by looking at the scale of the problem the intervention is designed
to solve and the evidence that it will be effective in doing so.
This should be weighed against ethical considerations including
intrusiveness, restriction of freedom and transparency. We do
not believe that levels of public acceptance or "public permission"
are a necessary pre-condition of an ethically acceptable intervention,
but given the potential impact of low levels of public acceptance
on the effectiveness of an intervention, this must be relevant
to any policy decision.
2.20. The idea of the Government intervening
to change people's behaviour will often be controversial, and
so it is important that ministers are always able to explain the
evidence-base of any proposed behaviour change intervention, and
why it is a necessary and proportionate means of addressing a
3 BC 76, BC 105, BC 107, BC 108, BC 110. Back
The Nuffield Ladder of Interventions is an analysis of interventions
developed by the Nuffield Council of Bioethics in a report on
ethical issues in public health published in 2007. It classifies
categories of public policies according to degree of intervention
in the personal life of individuals. (Public health: the ethical
issues, Nuffield Council of Bioethics (2007)). Back
BC 52, BC 76, BC 83, BC 86. Back
QQ 2, 55, 58. Back
QQ 2, 54, 55, 294. Back
Q 54. Back
Q 703. Back
Q 715. Back
For example: "David Cameron's 'nudge unit' aims to improve
economic behaviour", The Guardian, 9 September 2010;
"Nudge unit: how the Government wants to change the way we
think", The Belfast Times, 3 January 2011; "Whitehall
won't be nudged", The Telegraph, 17 February 2011. Back
For example: Creating growth, cutting carbon, Department
for Transport (January 2011); HL Deb 30 November 2010 col 669;
HL Deb 19 January 2011 col 824. Back
Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein (2008). Back
Ibid, p.8. Back
Q 703. Back
Q 47. Back
Q 705. Back
BC 75, BC 81, BC 107. Back
BC 114. Back
The Government's written submission to the inquiry quotes from
the Coalition agreement that this Government "will be a much
smarter one, shunning the bureaucratic levers of the past and
finding intelligent ways to encourage support and enable people
to make better choices for themselves" (BC 114). Back
Q 109. Back
The Coalition: our programme for Government, op. cit. Back
Appendix 6. Back
BC 81, BC 103, BC 105, Q 47. Back
Appendix 6. Back
Q 182. Back
Q 705. Back
BC 66. Back