It’s difficult to quantify the number of conscious decisions a person makes in a day, but ballpark estimates put it in the tens of thousands. With all those choices, it’s easy to see why when given the opportunity, we tend to stick with the default option. For example, past research has demonstrated that employees save more toward retirement if they are automatically enrolled in a retirement savings plan and offered the choice to opt out of the plan rather than the option to enroll.
A default option is a “nudge,” a subtle intervention designed to guide people toward better decisions. Behavioral scientists and policymakers turn to nudges when implementing new policies, but some critics argue that such nudges are manipulative, coercing people into choices they aren’t even aware they’re making.
What side you land on in this debate may depend on whether the nudge in question conflicts with your political leanings, according to research by Chicago Booth postdoctoral researcher David Tannenbaum; University of California, Los Angeles’s Craig R. Fox; and Harvard’s Todd Rogers. In a series of studies, they demonstrate that people are more likely to see a nudge as ethically problematic when it’s at odds with the policy objectives they support. The researchers call this reaction “partisan nudge bias,” and it can complicate the way we view, and vote on, public policy.
In one study, Tannenbaum, Fox, and Rogers asked an online panel of US participants to evaluate part of the 2006 Pension Protection Act (PPA), designed to encourage companies to ensure their employees save for retirement by using an automatic enrollment default. Participants were told the law had been implemented by either the Bush administration or the Obama administration, or they were not told any information about specific policymakers. (In reality, both Bush and Obama endorsed and oversaw the PPA.)
The researchers find that participants conflated their feelings about the default with the political association of the politicians enforcing it. When told the default had been put in place by Obama, people who identified as liberals tended to accept it, while conservatives were more likely to criticize the method as manipulative. When told a default had been put in place by Bush, self-identified conservatives were more accepting, and liberals more critical. And when participants were given no information about which side, if any, did the nudging, both liberals and conservatives generally expressed the same views.
The researchers also asked policymakers—including US mayors and high-level public servants—about the ethics of behavioral interventions, as applied to programs with clear political objectives. Self-identified liberals found auto-enrollment in programs such as tax breaks for the wealthy to be ethically problematic, whereas self-identified conservatives had the same criticism of auto-enrollment in food stamps.
The research suggests that nudges can help people make better decisions, but that policymakers should leave out partisan details.