Nudging, Big Data, and Well-being

by Fabio Tollon

Pexels by Tyler Hendy

We often make bad choices. We eat sugary foods too often, we don’t save enough for retirement, and we don’t get enough exercise. Helpfully, the modern world presents us with a plethora of ways to overcome these weaknesses of our will. We can use calorie tracking applications to monitor our sugar intake, we can automatically have funds taken from our account to fund retirement schemes, and we can use our phones and smartwatches to make us feel bad if we haven’t exercised in a while. All of these might seem innocuous and relatively unproblematic: what is wrong with using technology to try and be a better, healthier, version of yourself?

Well, let’s first take a step back. In all of these cases what are we trying to achieve? Intuitively, the story might go something like this: we want to be better and healthier, and we know we often struggle to do so. We are weak when faced with the Snickers bar, and we can’t be bothered to exercise when we could be binging The Office for the third time this month. What seems to be happening is that our desire to do what all things considered we think is best is rendered moot by the temptation in front of us. Therefore, we try to introduce changes to our behaviour that might help us overcome these temptations. We might always eat before going shopping, reducing the chances that we are tempted by chocolate, or we could exercise first thing in the morning, before our brains have time to process what a godawful idea that might be. These solutions are based on the idea that we sometimes, predictably, act in ways that are against our own self-interest. That is to say, we are sometimes irrational, and these “solutions” are ways of getting our present selves to do what we determine is in the best interests of future selves. Key to this, though, is we as individuals get to intentionally determine the scope and content of these interventions. What happens when third parties, such as governments and corporations, try to do something similar?

Attempts at this kind of intervention are often collected under the label “nudging”, which is a term used to pick out a particular kind of behavioural modification program. The term was popularized by the now famous book, Nudge, in which Thaler and Sunstein argue in favour of “libertarian-paternalism”. Read more »