Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour

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Citation: Peter John, Graham Smith, and Gerry Stoker (2009/08/08) Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour. The Political Quarterly (RSS)
DOI (original publisher): 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2009.02001.x
Semantic Scholar (metadata): 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2009.02001.x
Sci-Hub (fulltext): 10.1111/j.1467-923X.2009.02001.x
Internet Archive Scholar (search for fulltext): Nudge Nudge, Think Think: Two Strategies for Changing Civic Behaviour
Tagged: nudge (RSS), civic (RSS), participation (RSS), deliberation (RSS), behavioural economics (RSS), deliberative democracy (RSS), participatory democracy (RSS), thaler (RSS), sunstein (RSS), NatematiasGenerals (RSS)


In Nudge Nudge, Think Think, precursor to a book of the same time, John, Smith, and Stoker contrast two approaches to addressing social problems:

  • Nudge involves using the "power of the state to try to change civic behaviour for the wider benefit," preserving the agency of citizens while steering choice "towards more positive outcomes for individuals and society as a whole."
  • Think holds that "citizens, given the right context and framing, can think themselves collectively towards a better understanding of problems and more effective solutions."

The Nudge Strategy

The authors situate the nudge approach in the context of the influence of cognitive psychology on political science, sociology, and economics, especially "behavioural economics." They also introduce the political history of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book Nudge on the UK Conservative government, who established the Behavioural Insights Team in response. Instead of focusing on incentives, nudge proponents argue that we should account for bounded rationality by designing for the "cognitive architecture of choice" that actually shape citizen decisions:

  • set good default options that citizens are likely to follow
  • offer citizens feedback about their mistakes
  • feedback should be timely
  • policymakers should require adequate information to be supplied to citizens making decisions ("mind maps")
  • offer citizens information about the behaviour of their peers

The Think Strategy

The think strategy, proposed by deliberative theorists, examines choices in terms of the "process through which they are formed." This model takes an "epistemic and moral dimension." Through deliberation, citizens learn new things and consider the consequences of their actions. The authors cite David Miller, who argues that deliberation has a moral value, tending "to eliminate irrational preferences based on false empirical beliefs, morally repugnant preferences that no one is willing to advance in the public arena, and narrowly self-interested preferences." When we talk to each other, we learn to thin differently for the common good. The authors identify common features of efforts inspired by the think approach:

  • "they mobilise citizens—particularly those from traditionally marginalised social groups—to engage in structured deliberations about issues of public concern"
  • events often have a competitive element
  • facilitators carefully structure the conversation
  • in some events, regional groups mobilise for self interest, balanced through exposure to people and communities unlike themselves. Example: participatory budgeting in Porto Alegre
  • in some events, randomized, stratified sampling techniques are used to create "mini-publics" that then make decisions. Example: British Columbia Citizens Assembly

Nudge and Think Compared

Upon setting out these two approaches, this paper argues that these approaches are fundamentally different:

Table 1: nudge and think compared (p366)
View of preferencesFixedMalleable
View of SubjectsCognitive misers, users of shortcuts, prone to flawed, sometimes befuddled thinkingReasonable, knowledge hungry and capable of collective reflection
Costs to the individualLow, but repeatedHigh, but only intermittently
Unit of AnalysisIndividual-focusedGroup-focused
Change processCost-benefit-led shift in choice environmentValue-led outline of new shared policy platform
Civic conceptionIncreasing the attractiveness of positive-sum actionAddressing the general interest
Role of the stateCustomise messages, expert and teacherCreate new institutional spaces to support citizen-led investigation, respond to citizens

The paper concludes by arguing that both of these approaches are needed for a successful state: "the state not only needs to provide institutions that can help citizens deliberate, but if the strategy is to be sustainable, it has to follow up on the recommendations that emerge—otherwise participants are likely to be disempowered and further disengaged." The authors argue that nudge is a low-cost way to get "individuals to cooperate in ways with which they are comfortable," addressing small issues. The authors argue that we need collective big think in order to develop the "large scale recognition on the parts of citizens [of] more major shifts in lifestyle" and produce innovative policy ideas.

Theoretical and Practical Relevance

This paper is a great entry point into the nudge and deliberative democracy literature, with the two approaches illuminating and circumscribing each other very well.