The nudge-ledge

Explore • Pulse #4 • 2 min

Since the 1970s nudges have developed in the public space and in public transportation, proving that they can generate major behavioural changes with limited costs. But is this philosophy ethical? Interview with Étienne Bressoud, Managing Director of the BVA Nudge Unit.

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Nudging ahead

6 min

Étienne Bressoud, Managing Director of the BVA Nudge Unit

What makes a nudge ethical?

Richard H. Thaler and Cass Sunstein both say that one principle — transparency — is a must: can I explain my nudge transparently to the people I am applying it to? A nudge is like using a GPS — you’re going to get to your destination with help. But if you don’t want to follow the GPS instructions, you don’t have to.

Tell us about the ‘sludge’ phenomenon.

A sludge is a kind of friction, high or low, that people face when they want to take one direction, or the other. If it is often associated with ‘nudge for bad’, it’s actually not the same thing. You can ‘sludge’ for good, adding friction to help people achieve their goals. As Cass Sunstein, co-author of ‘Nudge’ wrote: “It should be clear that nudges can be for good or bad; also that sludges can be for good or bad”. On the BVA Nudge Unit blog there is an article on nudges, dark nudges, and sludges that provides criteria for defining whether a nudge is for good or for bad. For example, it asks: ‘is this in the interest of the person, against their interest, or solely in the interest of the brand producing the nudge?’.

Looking to the future, is artificial intelligence compatible with nudges and will it eventually be used to bolster them?

That’s a big question. AI can definitely complement nudging since both are decision oriented. But in my view, human intelligence will still have to complement AI since many tasks require human sensitivity.

What upcoming nudge‐related projects are you most excited about?

The really interesting projects are focused on work and living environments. We are currently working on several ‘nudge’ buildings, for housing and offices, to encourage sustainable and sociable behaviour — both inside them and out.

So down the line there might even be ‘nudge cities’?

Yes, that is entirely possible! Nudges are already in our cities. We can integrate them systematically instead of one by one.


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