The Future of Behavioural Change: Public or Private Nudging?

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Public authorities, including the EU and its Member States, are increasingly interested in exploiting behavioral insights through public action. They increasingly do so through choice architecture, i.e. the alteration of the environment of choice surrounding a particular decision making context in areas as diverse as energy consumption, tax collection and public health. In this regard, it is useful to distinguish between two situations. The first is that of a public authority which seeks to steer behaviour in the public interest, taking into account one or more mental shortcuts. Thus, a default enrollment for organ donation leverages on the power of inertia to enhance the overall prevalence organ donors. Placing an emoticon (sad face) or a set of information about average consumption on a prohibitive energy bill has the potential to nudge consumers towards less energy consumption. I call this pure public nudging. The second perspective is when public authorities react to exploitative uses of mental shortcuts by market forces by regulating private nudging. I call this ‘counter-nudging’. Pure public nudging helps people correct mental shortcuts so as to achieve legitimate objectives (e.g. increased availability of organs, environmental protection, etc.), regardless of their exploitative use by market forces. The 2nd AIM Lecture examines whether also private companies may nudge for good.
Are corporations well-placed to nudge their customers towards societal objectives, such as the protection of the environment or the promotion of public health? This is what I call benign corporate nudging.
Well, their record is far from being the most credible. Companies have used behavioural inspired interventions to maximize profits, what led them to sell more and in turn to induce citizens into more consumption. Yet corporate marketing need not always be self-interested. An incipient number of companies are using their brand, generally through their packaging and marketing efforts, to ‘nudge for good’.
By illustrating some actual examples, this lecture determine under which conditions companies may nudge for good. It argues that benign corporate nudging may have – unlike CSR efforts – a positive long-term, habit-forming effect that influences consumers' future behaviour 'for good'’.