The Obama 'Nudge Unit' Rides Again

One of the things the Obama-Biden Administration is known for was its use of psychological tricks to get Americans to do what government officials wanted Americans to do. Some describe this method as a government “nudge” while others describe it as manipulation or coercion.

Politico described it as the government “using psychology on citizens” as a way for policymakers to change people’s behavior:

For the past year, the Obama administration has been running an experiment: Is it possible to make policy more effective by using psychology on citizens? The nickname is “nudging” -- the idea that policymakers can change people’s behavior just by presenting choices or information differently. […]

Nudging has gained a lot of high-profile advocates, including behavioral-law guru Cass Sunstein and former budget czar Peter Orszag. Not everyone likes the idea --“the behaviorists are saying that you, consumer, are stupid,” said Bill Shughart, a professor of public choice at Utah State University -- but President Obama was intrigued enough that he actually hired Sunstein, a law professor at Harvard who co-wrote the best-known book about the topic, “Nudge.”

The president officially adopted the idea last year when he launched the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST), a cross-agency effort to bring behavioral science research into the policymaking process. Now the team has published its first annual report on this experiment.

“Nudge” has been defined in this way:

A nudge […] is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Emphasis should be on changing people’s behavior “in a predictable way.” One of the major government promoters of nudging, Cass Sunstein (a President Biden National Security official), has unconvincingly suggested that nudging is not manipulative, coercive, secretive, or trickery.

It is reasonable to conclude that the scholars’ idea of “nudge” is likely manipulation, coercion, and/or trickery, at minimum, most of the time.

The term is based on the physical nudge, in which one person physically or forcefully pushes another in the direction desired by the nudger. The nudgee is able to sense both the nudger and the direction in which the nudger desires the nudgee to go.

In other words, it seems that physical nudges never occur without the nudgee’s knowledge of being nudged.

It seems that necessary conditions, then, for psychological nudges would include informing the nudgee that they are being nudged, by whom they are being nudged, the nudgee’s predictable response/behavior, the nudger’s desired response/behavior, and other relevant information.

Now, how many times did the government or others say something like, “President Obama and all of us in the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team are nudging you here to make this behavioral change which we used psychology to determine would be your predicted behavior. This is a nudge; you are still free to repel our nudge, though, and choose what you want.”

Or, how many Americans even knew that the Obama-Biden Administration had a Nudge Unit which used “psychology on its citizens” to get them to act in a predictable way? Probably not many. (Some might have known of former President Obama’s support for nudging but might not have known about the actual Nudge Unit labeled as the White House’s Social and Behavioral Science Team.)

The point is that government nudgers and other psychological nudgers most often act covertly and secretly, while a physical nudge and the desired response of the nudger does not occur secretly.

Thus, government nudges are likely manipulation, coercion, and/or trickery.

The Obama-Biden Administration started a “Nudge Unit” to “use psychology on citizens” in America and get Americans to act in a predictable way. The Nudge Unit was in the Office of Science and Technology Policy (a potentially significant fact in and of itself). The Trump Administration then eliminated the Nudge Unit. Then the Biden-Harris Administration re-commissioned the U.S. government’s Nudge Unit:

The Biden-Harris Administration formally rechartered the Social and Behavioral Sciences Subcommittee (SBS) of the Committee on Science of the National Science and Technology Council in April 2022. The SBS coordinates policy action to address pressing social issues and Biden-Harris Administration priorities using the tools and insights of the social and behavioral sciences.

The Biden-Harris Social and Behavioral Sciences Subcommittee functions to advance the Biden-Harris Administration’s Agenda”:

The social and behavioral sciences offer unique tools for describing, understanding, and addressing societal challenges, and assessing and evaluating initiatives, programs, and policies. As described in its Charter, the SBS leverages these tools to advance the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda, to carry out short-term, high-priority tasks, and to lay the groundwork for longer-term coordination of agency efforts related to the social and behavioral sciences.

Emphasis should be on both the use of the Social and Behavioral Sciences Subcommittee, or “Nudge Unit,” to “advance the Biden-Harris Administration’s agenda” and “lay the groundwork for longer-term coordination of agency efforts related to the social and behavioral sciences.”

The question then, should not be “is the Biden Administration using psychology on Americans?” but instead “how is the Biden Administration using psychology on Americans to advance the Biden-Harris agenda or a swiftly chosen replacement candidate?”

Regardless of opinions on the Super Bowl and celebrities, Americans should at least be aware of the government’s Nudge Unit which might be using psychology to nudge Americans and advance the Democrat agenda.

Image: Yale University Press

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