Letters: A nudge works best when its target doesn't realise it's being nudged.
There are a number of issues in Cass Sunstein's article on nudging that need addressing (We should be nudging people, not shoving, 25 April) First, a nudge works best when its target doesn't realise it's being nudged – think of the architecture of a supermarket, for example, which encourages us to buy one thing rather than another. This undermines Sunstein's claim that a nudge maintains "freedom of choice". It's true that there are plenty of things on the shelves, but a nudge will have failed if it doesn't make us choose one of those things in preference to others.
Second, Sunstein has it in for public officials, who he says have limited information and do not always have the purest of motivations. Unlike nudgers, of course, who, we are to suppose, possess perfect information and are unerringly saintly.
Guardian journalist Shiv Malik revealed the grubby side of nudging when he exposed the bogus psychometric tests inflicted on jobseekers by the Department for Work and Pensions – whatever answers were entered, the subject ended up with the same psychometric profile (Jobseekers made to carry our bogus psychometric tests, 30 April 2013). This hardly amounts to treating people with dignity – another core nudge value, according to Sunstein.
Third, for nudgers, people are not citizens involved in the co-creation of policy, but experimental subjects to be prodded and poked in the petri dish of the behavioural economist's imagination. Sunstein has defined nudging as "libertarian paternalism" – an oxymoron rooted in the self-fulfilling prophecy that people are incapable of sound judgment. In sum, nudging is anti-democratic and anti-political, the latest in a long line of attempts to bypass the messy business of engaging citizens in grown-up debate.