There’s controversy in the UK over trials of a £200 payment to mothers for breastfeeding their children. Bizarrely, the payment is being described as a ‘nudge’ when it is nothing of the sort. A nudge is a change in the framing of a choice that doesn’t change the choice itself. Interventions that make one option far cheaper than the other through a cash payment are not nudges. The breastfeeding payment is a pure incentive scheme and has nothing to do with behavioural research.
This point probably didn’t need an entire blog post but it is relevant to a discussion that Eric and I had in a comment thread a while ago (that I can no longer find). He suggested that Government nudges are just a friendly face for paternalistic interventions. I thought that very uncharitable at the time. So how does this latest episode of misuse fit in to the discussion? I don’t know who started calling the payment a nudge so I can’t pin the blame on anyone in particular. What it does show is that the terminology has entered regular use without the accompanying concept becoming familiar. That could lead to the abuse that Eric fears. Alternatively, abuse could empty the term of meaning to the point that it is no longer used because of the negative connotations.
The outcome probably doesn’t matter too much; the idea is far more important than the term and can live on without it. The real crux of Thaler and Sunstein’s idea is that framing matters. That realisation is unlikely to disappear, whatever happens to the catchy phrase they coined to describe it.