Over the past few years, many nations have adopted policies that promise to improve people’s lives while preserving their freedom of choice. These approaches, informed by behavioral economics, are sometimes called nudges.
Nudges include disclosure policies, as in the idea that borrowers should “know before they owe.” They include simplification, as in recent reductions in the paperwork requirements for the Free Application for Federal Student Aid.
Nudges include default rules, which establish what happens if people do nothing at all -- as with automatic enrollment in a savings plan. They also include reminders, such as text messages informing people they are about to go over their monthly allowance of mobile-phone minutes.
When the two of us worked in the Obama administration, we were interested in approaches of this kind, because the evidence suggests they work. For example, the Credit Card Accountability Responsibility and Disclosure Act of 2009 imposes numerous disclosure requirements, which are helping to save consumers more than $20 billion in annual late fees and overuse charges.
In the U.S. and other nations, automatic enrollment has significantly increased participation in savings plans. A recent study found that in Denmark, automatic enrollment has had a larger impact than significant tax incentives in getting people to save. The study found that 99 percent of the retirement contributions made in response to tax incentives would have been saved anyway; by contrast, the bulk of the contributions made by people who were automatically enrolled in a retirement plan represented a net addition to saving.
In an economically challenging time, the nudge approach can deliver major benefits without imposing big costs on the public or private sector. And, like a GPS, nudges still have the virtue of allowing people to go their own way. If informed consumers want to run a risk, they can do that. A nudge isn’t a shove. Yet this approach to government has stirred up objections from both the right and the left.
What makes it legitimate for public officials to nudge people they are supposed to serve? Whenever government acts, isn’t there a risk of error, bias and overreaching?
These are good questions, and some nudges should be avoided. But the whole point of the approach is to preserve freedom of choice, and being nudged is part of the human condition. Both private and public institutions are inevitably engaged in nudging, simply because they design the background against which people make choices, and no choice is ever made without a background.
Whenever the government is designing applications and forms, its choices affect people’s decisions. Complexity produces different results from simplicity. Many laws require disclosure from the government or the private sector, and this can occur in different ways. The architecture of disclosure (including which items are placed first, font size, color, readability) is likely to influence what people select.
Life would be impossible to navigate without default rules. Computers, mobile phones, health-care plans and mortgages come with defaults, which you can change if you wish. An employer might say that you must opt in to be enrolled in a savings plan, or alternatively that you must opt out if you don’t want to participate. In either case, a default rule is involved.
Some skeptics (especially on the left) object that nudges may be ineffective or even counterproductive. In their view, coercion is often both necessary and justified. The objections are most pointed, as New York University School of Law professors Ryan Bubb and Richard Pildes argue in a forthcoming article in the Harvard Law Review, when nudges are seen as affirmatively harmful.
An example involves automatic enrollment in savings plans, which both of us have supported. Critics point out that if employers choose a low contribution rate, automatic enrollment can decrease employees’ total savings -- a perverse effect. That observation, however, is a reason for smarter nudging, not for coercion, and is thus not a persuasive critique of nudges in general. One smarter approach in this area is “automatic escalation,” a complement to automatic enrollment.
With automatic escalation, as time goes on and people earn more money, a higher share of their wages goes into savings -- unless they opt out. The objection that nudges reduce retirement savings collapses.
And guess what? A survey from Towers Watson & Co. found that in 2012, 71 percent of plans with automatic enrollment included escalation. In 2009, 50 percent did. So much for the critique that contributions in these plans are fixed at their initial levels.
To be sure, coercion might turn out to be justified when the benefits clearly outweigh the costs. But behaviorally informed approaches, which maintain freedom of choice, have growing appeal. As we continue to learn what works, we will identify numerous ways to improve people’s lives while avoiding the costs and the rigidity of more heavy-handed alternatives.
(Peter Orszag is vice chairman of corporate and investment banking and chairman of the financial strategy and solutions group at Citigroup Inc. and a former director of the Office of Management and Budget. Cass R. Sunstein is the Robert Walmsley University professor at Harvard Law School, the co-author of “Nudge” and a former administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs. They are Bloomberg View columnists.)
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