Perspectives on the use of so-called ‘policy nudges’ by governments and government agencies are heavily influenced by the political lens through which they are presented. That is the finding by researchers writing in the July 10 edition of Nature Human Behaviour, who further suggest that couching behavioral policy interventions in neutral language will help ensure unbiased reactions from citizens and policymakers.

The use of policy nudges in the public realm has become more common in recent years as policymakers have become better attuned to their effectiveness. “Examples of nudges include providing citizens with information about how their home energy use compares with that of their neighbours and encouraging employees to participate in 401(k) retirement savings plans through the use of automatic enrollment defaults,” the authors write.

To determine the influence of political bias on public opinion about government’s use of policy nudges in general, the researchers tested groups of citizens, mayors and other senior government officials, providing them with specific examples of policy objectives—either liberal or conservative—to which behavioral interventions would be applied. People tended to think it was generally acceptable and ethical for governments to use policy nudges to achieve governmental objectives when policy nudges were illustrated with examples that aligned with their political attitudes.

The authors concluded that “both laypeople and practising policymakers evaluate policy nudges in ways that are coloured by their political preferences. People tend to view nudges as more unethical, coercive and manipulative when illustrated by policy objectives they oppose compared with objectives they support, or when told that such behavioural interventions have been enforced by a policymaker they oppose compared with one they support. Experienced policymakers also exhibit partisan nudge bias.”

If the goal were to maximize the acceptability of government’s use of policy nudges, the choice of language matters.

“Importantly, when we described nudges without information about policy objectives or advocates that might provide partisan cues, liberals and conservatives evaluated these interventions similarly,” the authors conclude. “This finding suggests that there may not be strong partisan objections to the use of policy nudges. Thus, we recommend that, whenever feasible, policymakers should minimize partisan information associated with a policy nudge.”

The paper is co-authored by Harvard Kennedy School Associate Professor Todd Rogers. It is published in the July 10th edition of Nature Human Behaviour.

Get smart & reliable public policy insights right in your inbox.