Govt. Nudge Units Find the “BEST” Ways to Manipulate the Public

nudge, hand holding puppets
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Freedom of speech means a lot to us at the OP.  However, that’s been fading fast, as Daisy has documented, and as though speech restrictions aren’t bad enough, most of us have been lab rats for central planners’ behavioral experiments longer than we probably care to realize.  And now there are Nudge Units.

Huge amounts of money have been poured into “nudge research,” determining the best ways to get populations to change their behaviors without passing laws or using force.

What are Nudge Units?

Let’s look at how these “Nudge Units” got started, what they’ve been used for most recently, and what they’re likely to focus on next.

The concept of “nudging” people into making better choices became popular with the book Nudge—Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, authored by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, and published in 2008. Their book defines a nudge as:

. . .any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior 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 fruit at eye level counts as a nudge.  Banning junk food does not.  (p.6) 

(You may be interested to note that author Sunstein is married to Samantha Power, the administrator of Biden’s US Agency for International Development and previously Obama’s ambassador to the UN. Forbes listed Ms. Power as the 63rd most powerful woman in the world in 2014. Do you think she’s Nudging? ~ Daisy )

Individuals in government and industry quickly realized that the authors’ insights into the decision-making process could be used to manipulate that process in the minds of the general public, many of whom don’t have the time or mental energy for NYT bestsellers.

The British government established its first Behavioural Insights Team in 2010.  It began as a seven-person team within a Cabinet Office nicknamed the “Nudge Unit” then became an independent social purpose company in 2014 before being purchased by Nesta, a larger social purpose company, in 2021. 

These social purpose companies employ experts in promoting desirable behaviors.  So in Britain, for example, they want to cut obesity rates in half and reduce household carbon emissions by 28% by 2030.

I don’t know how successful they’ve been in cutting obesity rates, but the Nudge Unit did prove its effectiveness early on by helping the British government collect an extra £200 million (about $248 million) in taxes in 2017. Not surprisingly, the Nudge Unit has become so popular that they have worked with governments in over 50 countries and have opened subsidiary offices in the U.S., Singapore, Canada, Australia, Indonesia, Mexico, and France.

What does a Nudge look like in the States?

Within the U.S., Nudge Units have been employed by health care systems such as UPenn, and Blue Cross Blue Shield Massachusetts. In a way, this isn’t surprising; American and British citizens alike are known for high obesity rates and poor overall health.  

Promoting good health within the general population seems like a good government goal, and I think most of us would have found this largely uncontroversial before 2020.  We may not always have agreed with the FDA’s exact dietary advice, but most of us would have probably agreed that we, as a nation, don’t need quite so many candy bars.  

However, during 2020, this changed.  Public messaging around health care became far more intense, and some of the advice didn’t make sense.  At the very simplest level, what makes people healthy?  Exercise and proper diet.  Humans have known intuitively for a long time that sunshine is good for us. More recent research has shown that it kills viruses and bacteria. So why were people being forbidden to exercise and even, in some cases, to go outside?

This article isn’t really about the many possible reasons the public was given so much nonsensical advice during 2020 and 2021.  I am just pointing out that, in some ways, the public health messaging campaign during Covid was seen by various governments (particularly the British) as an opportunity to see how far Nudging could influence actual behavior, even when the nudges didn’t make logical sense.

Fortunately (or unfortunately, depending on your point of view), governmental Nudging didn’t influence people nearly as much as various government bodies had hoped. In fact, Nudge author Thaler himself said that, when it came to increasing vaccine uptake, it was time for “pushes and shoves” in the form of passports and more severe restrictions.

But the pandemic is officially over, right? Does this really matter now?

Yes, it still does. 

As we discussed before, the World Health Organization is set to ratify a new pandemic treaty in 2024. As discussed in our previous article as well as in Jose’s more recent article, we have plenty of reasons to believe that more pandemics will come along, and that the WHO will be taking precedence over local and even national governments to address them.  

The WHO has grown a lot since its inception in 1948.  It has had its own Behavioral Insights Team since 2017.  And some of their work, like their campaign to prevent the over-use of antibiotics, has been really important.  But just because they undertake some worthwhile projects doesn’t mean we can assume everything they do is benign.  

It’s crucial to understand that there are no neutral Nudges. Richard Thaler points this out himself in an interview with Sydney Business Insights.  You will always be asked to choose between one thing and another.  Thaler also says in this interview that, within the original British Nudge Unit, their mantra was, “If you want people to do something, make it easy.”   Ask yourself, are people that constantly shoot for the lowest common denominator in a population the ones you want to take guidance from?

Perhaps more significantly, the WHO’s new Chair of their Technical Advisory Group on Behavioral Insights (their Nudge Unit), Prof. Susan Michie, is an active member of Britain’s Communist PartyAre you comfortable with an avowed communist being responsible for subliminal messaging regarding your health choices?  If you’re a communist yourself, that might be great, but what about the rest of us?  

The people behind the Nudge messages matter. 

Do you want to get your relationship advice from Jordan Peterson or Andrew Tate?  It’ll make a difference.  

And health care is only one area of interest in Nudging.  Right now, in the U.S., that has been the main area of focus.  However, since the first Nudge Unit developed in Britain and then expanded outward, it is reasonable to look to the British to see what may be coming next.  As speculated upon by Laura Dodsworth in her recent interview with Russell Brand, climate change rhetoric will likely ramp up.  

We’ve already seen some examples of it.  The same tools they might have been using ten years ago to get people to choose fruit as opposed to candy bars are now being used to get us to choose insect products instead of meat.  This has had limited effect, as we’ve reported before.

How do they work?

Nudges work best for behaviors that people know they should pursue anyway.  It’s been difficult to Nudge people into doing things they find very unpleasant (like eating bugs) or may have moral qualms about (putting novel substances in their bodies).

So far, the usefulness of Nudging has been limited, but that may change within the next few years simply because messaging of all kinds is about to get so much cheaper, thanks to AI.  ChatGPT and other similar programs will be able to churn out all kinds of little jingles useful not only for traditional companies but for social purpose companies and government programs, as well.  

And as messages of all kinds become cheaper and cheaper to produce, the demands to change our behavior for public health, or the climate, or whatever, will become more and more constant.

It’s going to take more individual effort on our part to sort out the real information from whatever convenient narratives are currently being promoted.  This will apply, not only to current-events type information but also to things like health and self-improvement.  

I’ll say it again because it’s so important:  There are no neutral Nudges.  We are all constantly being Nudged in one direction or another.  We can’t escape Nudges, but we can choose which ones we give our attention to.  

What are your thoughts?

Does this bring a specific Nudge to mind? Can you think of a time you’ve been influenced by one of them? What other ways is the government trying to manipulate us? Do you have anything to add? Let’s talk about it in the comments.

About Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

Picture of Marie Hawthorne

Marie Hawthorne

A lover of novels and cultivator of superb apple pie recipes, Marie spends her free time writing about the world around her.

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  • I’m very conscious of nudges on social media, such as YouTube, which is constantly trying to predictively steer me to watch particular things (and no doubt carefully monitoring what works, what doesn’t etc), but when we choose to withdraw from media it’s all less visible. I guess we all choose our “trusted source” and adopt the biases presented there and hope it is somewhat accurate, or at least that our limited world view has *some* grounding in reality.
    Ultimately, it will probably just push me to turn my phone from a “smart” one to a lovely old “dumb” one, and only use it for calls, text and taking photos…the good old days.

    • SMART anything is listening to you. Smart televisions in the living room and the bedroom are listening to your every word and watching you too whether the tv set is on or off. I ask in Walmart about a year ago…do you sell tv’s that are NOT smart tv’s and the man said, “very few”. We counted them he had 5 back there that were NOT smart. Hummmm, all the rest were. About 2 months ago in the new place where I live now, I asked again and that man told me “I don’t think they have any that are not “Smart tv’s…We looked; he can’t find one. Guess if the old tv goes out then you have to buy a Smart one and there goes your privacy unless you can figure out how to make it not be so “smart” lol…Good luck!

      • Right on about anything SMART.
        My phone spends most of its day listening to the local country radio station and those really annoying recuiter ads.
        Most everything else in the house is dumb. The TV is over a decade old, pre-smart.

  • Freud’s Nephew, Edward Bernays wrote the book on Public Relations, which by the way was used by none other than Joseph Goebbels who used Bernays public relations as the “Nudge” to move the German people to kill Jews for no other reason than to satisfy the rantings of a sick psychopath, Hitler !
    Nudging is a plagiarized adaptation of Bernay’s use of psychology in Public Relations! They use the word “Nudge” so as not inflame the people it is trying to manipulate, but is still evinces the same result. The need to manipulate others is still part and parcel to our Animlaistic Territorial Imperatives to protect our tribe at all cost regardless of the long term consequences they produce when people are manipulated like stupid cattle.

  • I dont think Bidens speech yesterday was in anyway a nudge, more like a hard shove. Interesting that in yet another of a growing list of techniques and public postures, Woke and the Biden Administration is paralelling nazi tactics socially, including thier violence and victim baiting.

  • Free, free and free. Yes get “insert vaccine here” and get free groceries. Forget the blueberries, potato chips are “buy one get one free”.

    • Someone told me YOU CAN’T FIX STUPID!!! And Grandma told me to THINK, THINK, use your GOD given common sense. Think about it first, be practical. Noone can take away what you are learning from you. She told me to BE STRONG, PERSEVERE, and NOT do stupid things over and over or I would be stupid!!! Ahhh, for the LOVE of grandma… Fruits and veggies from the farmers market that has not been tainted by the bad guys…eggs, meat, whatever you can get from a good reputable source is best…Not as cheap but better might not be less expensive. Farmers markets, fruit stands, those great APPLE stands in North Carolina. Yummy!!! Think HEALTH first, b/c without our health then what will we have… Are vaccines healthy? Hummmm… well you decide. The last ones maimed thousands, and killed millions so think (like grandma told me) think first… Is this a wise decision? ahhhhh,,, I’ve not been sick since 2007 and I had no flu shots or any others. I never had another cold, flu, or viris. The secret …”your immune system”. It must be good, otherwise you will find that you pick up anything and everything out there… HEALTH is the key to longevity…Blessings

      • “The last ones maimed thousands, and killed millions” Are you speaking of the mRNA Injections? that would be, ” Killed Millions and Maimed Tens of Millions”.

  • Humans seek to alter their conscience all the time. The thrill of sugar, the zing of caffeine, the ecstasy of the “O”. We do not always make the right choice in our lives but when government steps in to nudge us in their choice….
    They might mean well or they might be giving in to their own demons of power and control. They just forgot the change begins from within not from without. I’ve been around long enough to see whenever government picks up a tool, it will mess things up.

  • “Karens” made official and institutional.

    Useless nonsense. Yes, I know, they will send “professional” bullies to force the subject. Plan accordingly, as did Mr. Solzhenitsyn in hindsight.

    (I feel sorry for decent women named Karen, as they get giggled at now, but…)

  • Old idea, new name.
    Social engineering.
    Read the history of Easterseals.

    The Story of Easterseals

    Easter Seals › about-us › history
    Since its founding in 1919, Easterseals has remained committed to ensuring that the needs of children and adults with disabilities, veterans and older adults …

  • Well, if they are using “nudge” widgets it wouldn’t be the first time they are treating you like dirt, cattle, sheep, or children.

  • They went far beyond ‘nudging’ in the pandemic, look no further than the WHO infodemic manager training. There is hours of it up on YT if you look for it, but no one seems to ever talk about it. Training up nudge unit leaders how to use big data tools to spy on everyone, how to tailor targeting different demographics online and offline, how to stage ‘interventions’ when an unfavorable story goes viral. I even saw one where they talked about a training exercise in how to deal with an uncooperative government official who wanted to hold festival and not follow their ‘guidelines’.
    These people hired teams that would sit and feed templated propaganda into social media sites and online comment sections. I can’t get over how Orwellian that they would seek out public discussions they didn’t like and deploy these individuals, their nature totally undisclosed, pretending to be just another commenter, and they would relentlessly spiel messaging at us.

  • Stop paying attention to them. To the politicians, to the lying media who work for the government. Live your life free of them and all their insufferable stupidity and BS to the maximum extent possible.

  • Not owning a cell phone makes most nudges disappear. I do not respond well to them, if you want to see how, just nudge me.

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