Guest Post: Neil Levy
Full Article: Nudges in a Post-Truth World
Human beings are motivated reasoners. We find ways to believe what we want to believe, sometimes even in the face of strong evidence to the contrary. This fact helps to explain why so many political issues are intractable, and why so many of us reject the scientific consensus on urgent issues like GMOs, vaccination and climate change. Given the importance of these issues, any means of increasing our responsiveness to evidence deserves exploration.
Nudges – proposals, stemming from the behavioural sciences, for changing the way people act by changing their environments – may be one way of increasing responsiveness to evidence. In my paper, I briefly review evidence that suggests that people resist messages for (apparently) irrelevant reasons, and that by focusing on these reasons, we can make them more responsive to these messages. For instance, people tend to dismiss testimony that comes from those who do not share their political ideology, even when the issue is an empirical one (like climate change). There is evidence that ensuring that the ideology of the source matches the ideology of the audience makes the audience more receptive to the message.
But nudges are ethically controversial. There are a number of reasons why they are controversial, but the central reason is that many people see them as threatening the autonomy of the nudged. It is one thing to address people are reasoning beings, by giving them arguments. It is another to address them as mechanisms, bypassing their reasoning. The truth of claims about vaccines, say, do not depend on who says them, and if we make people more responsive to these claims by altering their source, we manipulate them. We give them causes for their beliefs, not reasons. Or so many people claim.
I think the picture of reasoning underlying this view is false. Much of our reasoning is unconscious, and consists in responsiveness to considerations that we would not recognize as reasons consciously. A great deal of cognitive science consists in the identification of processes that are, arguably, constitutive of reasoning but which operate in ways that our counterintuitive. I suggest that responding to evidence of the political orientation of the sources of testimony may be among such processes. Our placing greater weight on the testimony of those who share our political orientation is comparable to our placing of greater weight on the testimony of those who have better records at getting things right in the past: something that enables us better to track the truth. We place more weight on the reliable because that reduces the chances of our being deceived by fools. We place more weight on the testimony of those who share our values because that reduces the chances of our being deceived by those who would exploit us.
While in the paper I limit myself to claiming that certain nudges which increase our responsiveness to testimony may address themselves to our reasoning capacities (rather than bypassing these capacities), it may be that a similar line can be used to defend other nudges. For instance, our tendency to accept the default option may reflect an evolved disposition to defer to the wisdom of the group (which is in fact is essential to our ecological success). Assessing the ethics of nudges requires a better understanding of the nature of reasoning, and that understanding will have come from cognitive science, not our ordinary intuitions.