Nudging as Smiley-Faced Coercion: The Systematic Obstruction of Enlightenment.

They just took your natural impulses and desires and they pushed them, reinforced them, so you acted quite naturally, only you acted in the ways that they wanted.

The Marquis began to wonder if he had ever met this person before, and was trying to remember exactly where, when he was tapped gently on the shoulder by a man holding a large stick with a curved end.

‘We never want to fall out of step, do we?’ said the man, reasonably, and the Marquis thought Of course we don’t, and he sped up a little, so he was back in step once more.

“That’s good. Out of step is out of mind” said the man with the stick, and he moved on.

“Out of step is out of mind” said the Marquis aloud, wondering how he could his missed something so obvious, so basic. There was a tiny part of him, somewhere distant, that wondered what that actually meant.

–Neil Gaiman, How The Marquis Got His Coat Back, p. 37 (2014)

I cannot grow; I have no shadow

To run away from, I only play

I cannot err; There is no creature

Whom I belong to; Whom I could wrong

–Benjamin Britten, Hymn to St. Cecilia (1942)

1.  Introduction[i]

Nudge theory[ii] is a specialized subject in behavioral science. It is concerned with steering people’s behaviour without explicitly forbidding them to follow up on certain options.

The idea is that people are encouraged to choose the option of which someone else has said it is good for them. Thus, displaying a fruit bowl at a central place in the office counts as a nudge. Simply forbidding people to eat unhealthy would be coercive, so the nudge saves all those involved the awkward and costly business of prohibition, coercion and control, while the freedom of choice of the subjects is guaranteed.

Nudging, however, is manipulation: manipulation by way of structuring people’s “choice architecture.”

In so far as we make choices, we do so via decision processes that are influenced by existing facts, preferences, and values.[iii] If someone believes that he should eat healthy because he wants to live longer, he might develop a preference for healthy food by browsing through cooking blogs and reading scientific publications that deal with the topic. Behind every choice is this network of self-conscious and not-so-self-conscious influences.

The nudge operates on the sub-self-conscious level: it quietly activates people’s preferences, associations, and past experiences. The subject is led in a certain direction without him noticing it, or at least without noticing it to a degree that causes him to be offended or feeling coerced.

But what makes the idea of nudges so uncomfortable, if not infuriating? And what has it to do with professionalism or philosophy? I will tackle these two points in this essay. I will not recapitulate the arguments of nudge advocates in detail, but reflect on implications that seem to underlie nudging.

2.  Reflections on the Structure of Nudges

Underlying nudge theory is the idea that people are cognitive misers when it comes to thinking: they are prone to irrationality, self-defeating choices, and poor judgements.

They will choose to smoke, eat unhealthy or vote for ineffective measures.

The idea behind nudging, then, is that quietly pushing people towards certain choices that are better compensates this shortcoming.

Prohibiting smoking might be offensive and cause resistance in the target group. To avoid all this, there are numerous techniques that can be applied to nudge smokers in the right direction. One is to conceal smoking rooms, and keeping ashtrays, cigarettes and lighters out of sight. This strategy makes the costs for a casual smoke too high: every cigarette takes meticulous preparations. Other techniques are to have a campaign that shows that most smokers try to stop, or are unhappy with their predicament.[iv]

This nudge positions someone as belonging to a group with a deficit. This has the added advantage of making the prospective non-smoker more prone to reacting to the nudge: no-one wants to be in the disadvantaged group, so consequently stopping smoking makes one feel better about himself – the suggestion that someone has a shortcoming has its own built-in reward system.

Notice how this strategy works better than calling someone a loser: the suggestion is made that someone belongs to a group where others are losers – they struggle to get out, but can’t.

However, our smoker is the exception to this rule, a fact revealed by the nudge. If he actually proves that he can overcome the predicament in which the distant others are trapped, this effort proves that he is not a loser, but someone who made the right decision and succeeded in circumstances in which many others could not. After he quits smoking, he belongs to a different group: the winners. The winners have seen the error of their previous ways, are convinced that they are right (especially because all the effort of leaving the “losers” group could not be for nothing) and are rewarded by social acceptance, which leads to testimonies from their side: “Since I stopped smoking, I took up fitness, and feel so much better now….”, or “Life is so much better if you can breathe again….”

The eerie feeling that accompanies this situation is one of manipulation and deceit: the victim may perhaps freely breathe again, but the price is a piece of his individuality – a Faustian theme if ever there was one.

The smoker is treated as someone who cannot choose for himself, and has to be corrected. The point is not even to punish him, or to take away his addiction. The point is not to make him think. It is simply to influence his architecture of choices by suggestion and reward based on a prefixed set of assumptions of what is good for him.

Nudging treats people as inherently flawed and needing guidance. This guidance is not provided in an open dialogue or even in the form of instructions. It is delivered via a system that is decidedly asymmetric: the person behind the nudge reasons from a position of expert authority: he knows what is best for the ignorant masses, but cannot afford an open confrontation. And even if he could afford it, it would cost effort.

The beauty of nudging is that it excuses its author on two accounts:

First, he can present himself as someone with good intentions: coercion with a smiley-face. 🙂 Nudges are never unfriendly. They are reasonable, emphatic, well-meaning, and caring. We don’t want people to die from lung cancer, do we? 🙂 The nudger presents himself as a smiling paternal figure who knows best, and assumes a friendly, hand-on-the-shoulder type of authority.

Second, in view of the non-self-conscious character of nudging-mechanisms, people start to believe that they have chosen to react to nudging, removing the author from the picture altogether. The smoker in the example may believe that he voluntary quit smoking. He might excuse this by saying: “Now that they put all the ashtrays away, I decided to quit smoking, as I was planning to take up fitness anyway.”

Furthermore, the removal of the author causes the subject to internalize his guilt. After his quitting, he might say: “I knew smoking was not good for me,” assuming mild guilt about the years he smoked, stubbornly against his better judgment and that of his peers.

The implicit accusation depicts the smoker as someone who has let himself and his social relations down: he has smoked, burdened himself and others with his habit, and has in general acted against everyone’s best interests. This accusation only reinforces mild feelings of guilt. It is important that there is not too much guilt: merciful reconciliation should always be possible. Even better, the smoker should be able to be proud of his conversion: by overcoming all difficulties, he has become a better man. 🙂

The parallels with institutionalized religion and totalitarianism are obvious: whether it concerns sinners or dissidents, they are presented as those who have rebelled against benevolent authority, and have acted against that which they secretly knew was right all along.

There is a direct line of influence here to the Aristotelian idea that criminals have mainly sinned against themselves: by perpetuating crimes, they distanced themselves from the good.

However, the authorities are merciful, and after due repentance, reconciliation is possible.

In the case of smokers, there might even be post-conversion zeal to convert others, thereby reinforcing authority.

The same applies to religious converts: often are those who have converted to a certain religion even more fanatic than those who were born in it.

Nudges present themselves in different guises, but it is important that they do not come across as authoritarian. They might be presented as neutral, reasonable, beneficial measures that act not against someone in particular, but for everyone’s benefit.

Elaborate security controls at airports, e.g., are defended by saying: “we do this for everybody’s safety.” There is a sudden shift in presentation: instead of an authoritarian voice that insists on obedience, there is a kinder voice that stresses “that we are all in this together” and that measures, however regrettable, are in place to “protect everyone.” We don’t want someone to get hurt, do we? 🙂

Bernard Williams called this type of authority out with the term “Government House Utilitarianism.”[v]  A small group of individuals is in a position of authority and reasons from their strict, narrowly-defined Utilitarian point of view. This view is then projected onto society as a whole, in the name of progress and benevolent authority.

The obvious problems with this procedure are clear: the rest of society is viewed as less than perfect, so a form of predefined utilitarianism has to be projected onto society to make up for this deficit.

Its consequences are radical: citizens treated this way are robbed of chances to reflect on what they deem important or not. Strict Utilitarianism has decided on instrumental values for their dispositions, without consulting them. Agents are thus literally forced to live as if they were free – as if this type of oppressive utilitarianism did not exist and did not affect their lives.

3.  The Systematic Obstruction of Enlightenment

Thus, nudging takes individual responsibility so seriously that it replaces genuine choices with alternatives that are deemed acceptable.

It would be a mistake, however, to say that nudging has a disregard for personal responsibility.

The nudging-advocates in our society see personal responsibility as a great tool to exploit guilt, and as a most excellent instrument to use against individuals.

The truly infuriating part is that nudging makes the notion of responsibility into a collective, utilitarian duty instead of a personal decision.

Sometimes personal responsibilities do lead to collective duties, but not as a matter of fact. Nudging treats the notion of responsibility as something that is defined by authorities who are invisible to the agent.

Therefore, nudging is one of the most fundamental forms of undermining personal responsibility, because it robs individuals not only from free choice, but from the opportunity of learning to make choices.

This is precisely the point of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange: the intrusive Ludovico technique transforms main character Alex not into a better person, but into someone who cannot make a meaningful choice between good and evil anymore. The fundamental part of his personality that allowed for responsibility has been taken away from him.

Immanuel Kant’s definition of Enlightenment as emerging from one’s self-incurred immaturity is deeply and directly relevant here: overcoming immaturity may happen in a flash of insight or in a personal change, but fundamentally it is an ability that has to be trained, especially in an environment where autonomous choice is discouraged.[vi]

In such circumstances, resistance is a necessary condition for Enlightenment.

Once this ability is not trained, or lapses into disuse, resistance of any kind becomes impossible. The foundation for critical thinking lies in the realization that resistance is possible at all.[vii]

Kant’s notion of emerging from a self-incurred immaturity implies (at least) two aspects of Enlightenment that are currently threatened.

First, the decision to shed one’s immaturity is an action of sidestepping and undoing manipulation and its coercive mechanisms. The motto “Dare to think for yourself” implies an act of courage, since it can have dramatic consequences. This can be observed in contemporary professional academic philosophy, but the oppression of conformity works in more fields than philosophy. Conformism as endorsed by professionalism and mechanisms of nudging try to block this sidestepping motion into freedom.

The chief tactic is to convince autonomous individuals that they are not really autonomous individuals–that they are one of many, that they can be replaced, that they are flawed, that they should stick to their work and immediate tasks, and that without the system, they are nothing and can accomplish nothing.

Jeff Schmidt referred to this destructive process as the “weakening of the individual.”[viii] However, Schmidt’s contemporary insight was predated by Kant, who wrote:

That by far the greatest part of humankind (including the entire fair sex) should hold the step toward majority [adulthood] to be not only troublesome but also highly dangerous will soon be seen to by those guardians who have kindly taken it upon themselves to supervise them; after they have made their domesticated animals dumb and carefully prevented these placid creatures from daring to take a single step without the walking cart in which they have confined them, they then show them the danger that threatens them if they try to walk alone. Now this danger is not in fact so great, for by a few falls they would eventually learn to walk; but an example of this kind makes them timid and usual frightens them away from any further attempt.[ix]

Individuals must be stripped from all traits of individuality and free will to become productive members of a well-regulated, instrumentalized society or working environment. This environment is then retroactively presented as a “community,” with shared norms and values that are assumed and implanted, instead of being debated and accepted.

Notice that a crucial shift occurs here: a person is transformed from an individual with autonomy and a significant degree of rationality into a member of a community with fixed, predetermined, duties and rights that have been pre-defined for him.

Fear-mongering is the core strategy of this approach: we never would like to fall outside the benevolent community, do we? Imagine what could happen if one chooses to rebel against prevailing norms…Paulo Freire perceptively notes that oppressors need to mythicize the world in order for their oppression to be effective: the world has to be presented as a dangerous environment where falling out of step can have catastrophic consequences.[x]  Luckily, the oppressive measures will keep the danger out – as long as those oppressed obey.

Obviously, there are close links between the individual as “cogwheel in the mega-machine,” and the core premises of modernism and capitalism regarding labour and production. The critiques of Marcuse, Adorno and Horkheimer, Marx, Berman, Nietzsche, and Bauman can be read against the background of a persistent worry: that this type of reasoning would obliterate the autonomous individual.[xi] Indeed, one of the core research goals of the Frankfurt School was to investigate the links between modernity and Holocaust.

Again, Kant predates these distinctly modern worries as he writes:

Precepts and formulas, those mechanical instruments of a rational use, or rather misuse, of his natural endowments, are the ball and chain of an everlasting minority [childhood].[xii]

The misuse of natural endowments and impulses in a purely instrumental way leads to direct neglect of human dignity: human  persons are viewed as a resource to be exploited, and their natural impulses are used in such a way that they facilitate and enable their own oppression.[xiii]

Consequently, human persons find themselves in the same predicament as the Marquis at the beginning of this essay.

Second, enlightenment is a process of growth that usually unfolds painfully and slowly.

The proverbial conversion of Paul on the road to Damascus has survived in popular memory precisely because it is such a dramatic exception to the rule. Often, the process of experiencing a moment that could be labelled as a moment of insight or enlightenment takes years, and it takes courage to follow one’s thoughts to the end, since some conclusions may be unwelcome.

This difficulty underlies Kant’s injunction to dare to think for oneself. That this process is not without mistakes and some damage is obvious: Kant observes that a few falls will teach people how to walk – to get used to their freedom.[xiv]

These learning experiences are systematically undermined and distorted by nudges of all sorts.

Kant notes pithily that the public could enlighten itself, if only it were left to its freedom. This freedom is not just a happy state guided by universal reason, a paradise or a Kingdom of Heaven, but a space in which experiments with freedom can occur.

This experimentation is undermined by professionalism in all its guises: creative freedom is replaced with precepts and formulas that are being repeated and recycled until they replace real thought.

Paulo Freire observed that treatment of this type views professionals as passive, empty vats to be filled with confirmed wisdom – and we might extend his argument by stating that they are viewed as flawed subjects to be nudged and pushed for their own good.[xv]

Instead, Freire proposed a model of education that was collaborative and exploratory: students and teachers would explore problems together in a spirit of curiosity – a mirror image of Kant’s idea that people have to learn to walk all by themselves.

Likewise, Freire’s ideas echo Gilbert Ryle’s distinction between habits and skills: habits are instilled by mindless repetition and drills, but skills are developed by training, an activity for which creativity and criticality are indispensable.[xvi] Learning skills makes people smarter and develops insight, drilling them makes people just proficient in repeating a task without having to understand it.

Professionalism in its contemporary form drills people, treating them unfairly in the process by robbing them from their chances at becoming skilful instead of being merely proficient producers.

Worse, professionalism drills contemporary academic philosophy, a discipline that is crucially dependent on skilful and creative thinking.

Stimulating creativity and exploration is deeply relevant for the discipline of philosophy: its very substance is constituted by criticality, open-mindedness and genuine curiosity about the world, explored through the medium of reason.

To reduce this practice to rote-memorizing the latest knockdown arguments or repeating the latest technical jargon in philosophical debates is inimical to real thought: it nudges students and professionals, manipulating them into being content with fashionable catch-phrases and avoiding real thinking. One could almost imagine a system that turns them gradually into argument-generating, journal-article-generating, APA-style professional academic robots, wearing smiley-face badges awarded for their very good behaviour. 🙂

To quote Kant once more:

For this enlightenment, however, nothing is required but freedom, and indeed the least harmful of anything that could even be called freedom: namely, freedom to make public use of one’s reason in all matters.[xvii]

Depriving people of their capacity to use their reason publicly is morally impermissible.

If exercising this capacity is actively discouraged and distorted by professionalism, philosophy might well find itself in the same predicament as St. Cecilia: unable to grow, unable to err, and consequently sentenced to everlasting immaturity.


[i] Special thanks to Z for helpfully editing this essay.

[ii] See: []; Paul Rainford and Jane Tinkler: Designing for nudge effects: How behavior management can ease public sector problems, originally presented at Designing for nudge effects: how behaviour management can ease public sector problems, Innovating through design in public sector services seminar series, 23 February 2011, LSE Public Policy Group; See also Jeremy Waldron’s article ‘It’s all for your own good’ on The New York Review of Books, October 2014: []; For the original books on nudging see: Cass R. Sunstein, Why Nudge? The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2014) and Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein: Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (New York, NY: Penguin Books, 2009).

[iii] The billboard next to the highway with the photo of a tasty burger is also an activation of preferences, but does so openly: it is no secret that the fast-food joint down the road would like to have you as customer. The nudge is made very consciously, and as such is more an invitation than a nudge in the real sense.

[iv] I took this particular example from Rainford and Tinkler, 2011.

[v] Bernard Williams, Ethics and The Limits of Philosophy (London: Routledge, 2011) p. 117-122.

[vi] Immanuel Kant, An Answer to the Question: What is Enlightenment? (1784) in Paul Guyer and Allen W. Wood (eds.) Practical Philosophy (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1999) p. 17.

[vii] Paulo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed (New York: Penguin Books, 1993) p. 18, 43-49.

[viii] Jeff Schmidt, Disciplined Minds (Lanham: Rowman and Littlefield Publications, 2001) p. 90-94.

[ix] Kant, 1784 [1999] p. 17.

[x] Freire, 1993, p. 119-121.

[xi] For example: Karl Marx, Capital (1867), Friedrich Nietzsche, Human, all too Human (1878), Theodor Adorno and Max Horkheimer, Dialectic of Enlightenment (1944/1947), Max Horkheimer, Eclipse of Reason (1947), Herbert Marcuse, One-Dimensional Man (1964), Marshall Berman, All That Is Solid Melts Into Air (1982), Zygmunt Bauman, Liquid Modernity (2012).

[xii] Kant, 1784 [1999] p. 17.

[xiii] Williams,  2008, p. 118.

[xiv] Kant, 1784 [1999] p. 17.

[xv] Freire, 1993, p. 52-67.

[xvi] Gilbert Ryle, The Concept of Mind (New York: Penguin Books: 2000) p. 42-43.

[xvii] Kant, 1784 [1999] p. 18.