Highlights from Sheffield Salon: Nanny, Nudger or Therapist?

First published in Canvas:  November 10  2013

On Thursday 7th of November, Sheffield Salon, as part of the 2013 Festival of Social Science, hosted “Nanny, Nudger or Therapist” in association with the Economic and Social Research Council at the University of Sheffield.

The event provided a fascinating insight into the growing application of “liberal paternalist” alternatives to the “nanny state” by the government as an attempt to get the public to make better lifestyle choices, and pay our bills on time. A combination of behavioural psychology, sociology and neuroscience, these “nudge” policies are an attempt to reframe policy away from old fashioned big-state control  (shove) toward a subtler framework of reward, inducement and therapeutic support designed by choice architects.

“Nudge theory” is the vogue theory of our times. The government paper Mindspace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy suggests that because ‘people are sometimes seemingly irrational and inconsistent in their choices’, governments should shift attention away from ‘facts and information’ and, instead, use ‘nudge’ techniques to ‘change behaviour without changing minds.’ Nudge is also gaining traction in the mental health community, race awareness programmes, and university student health awareness.

Printed are a short collection of highlights from the event, predicated around answering some of the following questions:

1. “Does nudge degrade the fundamental liberal concepts of citizenship and individual moral autonomy by means of subtle manipulation?”

2. “If an elite of experts and policy wonks decide we are too irrational, emotional, inconsistent and lazy to act in our own best interests, might this indicate that the cornerstone of democracy, that society is made up of individuals rational enough to make their own choices, is being eroded?”

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