Awareness of a Nudge is not Required for Resistance of a Nudge


Written by Gabriel De Marco and Thomas Douglas

This blog post is based on our forthcoming paper: “Nudge Transparency is not Required for Nudge Resistibility,” Ergo.


Consider the following cases:

Food Placement. In order to encourage healthy eating, cafeteria staff place healthy food options at eye-level, whereas unhealthy options are placed lower down. Diners are more likely to pick healthy foods and less likely to pick unhealthy foods than they would have been had foods instead been distributed randomly.

Default Registration. In application forms for a driver’s license, applicants are asked whether they wish to be included in the organ donation registry. In order to opt out, one needs to tick a box; otherwise, the applicant will be registered as an organ donor. The form was designed in this way in order to recruit more organ donors; applicants are more likely to be registered than they would have been had the default been not being included in the registry.

Interventions like these two are often called nudges. Though many agree that it is, at least sometimes ethically OK to nudge people, there is a thriving debate about when, exactly, it is OK.

Some authors have suggested that nudging is ethically acceptable only when (or because) the nudge is easy to resist. But what does it take for a nudge to be easy to resist? Authors rarely give accounts of this, yet they often seem to assume what we call the Awareness Condition (AC):

AC: A nudge is easy to resist only if the agent can easily become aware of it.

We think AC is false. In our forthcoming paper, we mount a more developed argument for this, but in this blog post, we simply consider one counterexample to it, and one response to it.

Here’s the counterexample:

Giovanni and Liliana: Giovanni, the owner of a company, decides that he wants his workers to pay for the more expensive, unhealthy snacks in the company cafeteria. He thereby implements a variety of nudge-style influences, including ordering the cafeteria workers to put unhealthy food at eye level, without letting any of his office employees know about the program of interventions.

Liliana, who is on a diet, also works at Giovanni’s company. While in line at the cafeteria, she sees the unhealthy food, and is a bit tempted by it, partly as a result of the nudge. Recognizing the temptation, she performs a relatively easy self-control exercise: she reminds herself of her plan to eat healthily, and why she has it. She thinks about how a diet intended to change her eating habits is going to be difficult, and that once she starts making exceptions, it’s just going to be easier to make exceptions later on; her choice now is connected to her ability to make healthy choices later on. After this, she decides to take the salad and leave the chocolate pudding behind. Although she was aware that she was tempted to pick the chocolate pudding, she was not aware that she was being nudged, nor did she have the capacity to easily become aware of the fact that she was being nudged, since Giovanni went to great lengths to hide his intentions.

Did Liliana resist the nudge? We think so. We also think that it was easy for her to do what she did. If so, then the nudge was easily resistible for her, even though she did not have the capacity to easily become aware of the fact that she was being nudged. If you agree, then we have a straightforward counterexample to AC.

Someone might, however, disagree; and here is one way that someone might do so. One might agree that Liliana resists something, and that this is easy for her to do. However, one might argue that Liliana does not resist the nudge. Rather, she resists the effects of the nudge: the (increased) motivation to pick the chocolate pudding. Resisting the nudge, rather than its effects, requires that when acting contrary to the nudge, one intends to act contrary to the nudge. But Liliana doesn’t intend to do that. Although she intends to pick the healthy option, to pick the salad, or to not pick the chocolate pudding, she does not intend to act contrary to the nudge.

To help clarify, consider a different example. Lois Lane intends to meet up with Clark Kent after lunch in order to discuss their joint article on Superman’s exploits this past week. Although she, in fact, meets up with Superman (Spoiler: Clark Kent is Superman), she is not aware that she is doing so, nor does she intend to do so. Rather, her plan is simply to meet with Clark Kent, who she thinks is just another journalist, to work on their joint article. Similarly, although Liliana, in fact, acts contrary to the nudge, she is not aware that she is doing so, nor does she intend to do so. Rather, her plan is simply to pick the salad, which she thinks is the healthy food option (or, perhaps instead, to not pick the chocolate pudding, which is the unhealthy food option).

If resisting a nudge requires that one intend to at contrary to the nudge, then Liliana does not resist the nudge, and the counterexample to AC fails. Further, on such a view, we can develop a positive argument for AC. First, we could add the plausible claim that, in order for an agent to intend to act contrary to the nudge, she must be aware that she is being nudged. Thus, resisting the nudge, on this view, requires being aware of the nudge. And if it is not easy for the agent to become aware of the nudge, then it would seem that it is not easy for her to intend to act contrary to the nudge. Thus, if it is not easy for the agent to become aware of the nudge, it is not easy for her to resist the nudge. This is just a different, yet logically equivalent, way of stating AC.

In response, we agree that a way of resisting a nudge is to do so while intending to act contrary to it, and that resisting it in this way requires awareness of the nudge. We also agree that, if this were the only way to resist a nudge, then our counterexample fails. However, we do not think that this is the only way to resist a nudge. Partly, we think this because we find it plausible that Liliana (and agents in other similar cases) do resist the nudge.

But further, we think that, if resisting a nudge requires intending to act contrary to the nudge, this will cast doubt on the thought that nudges ought to be easy to resist. Suppose that there are two reasonable ways of understanding “resisting a nudge.” On one understanding, resistance requires that the agent intend to act contrary to the nudge. Call this intentional resistance. An agent does not intentionally resist a nudge if they do not have this intention, and Liliana does not intentionally resist the nudge. On a second, broader, way of understanding resistance – call it contrary-act resistance – resistance does not have this requirement. One could contrary-act resist a nudge by intending to act contrary to the nudge, but one need not intend to act contrary to the nudge in order to contrary-act resist it. Liliana does resist the nudge in this way when she intentionally picks the salad, and thereby acts in a way that is contrary to the nudge. Now consider two claims:

The strong claim: A nudge is ethically acceptable only if it is easy to intentionally resist.

The weak claim: A nudge is ethically acceptable only if it is easy to contrary-act resist it.

Are these claims plausible? We think that the weak claim might be, but the strong claim is not.

Consider again Food Placement. This was a case of a nudge just like Giovanni’s nudge, except that the food placement is intended to get more people to pick the healthy food option over the unhealthy one, rather than the reverse. In this version of the case, Giovanni wants to do what is in the best interests of his staff. According to the strong claim, this nudge would be ethically unacceptable insofar as his staff cannot easily become aware of the nudge. And this is so even though it would be ethically fine for Giovanni to put the healthy foods at eye level randomly. Moreover, it would remain so even all the following are true: a) the nudge has only a very small effect on a nudgee’s motivation, b) the nudgee picks the unhealthy food she would have picked in the absence of the nudge, c) she finds it very easy to act contrary to the nudge in this way, d) her acting contrary to the nudge in this way is a reflection of her values or desires, e) and her acting contrary to the nudge is the result of normal deliberation which is not significantly influenced by the nudge. We find it hard to believe that this nudge is not ethically acceptable.

We think, then, that if nudges have to be easily resistible in order to be ethically acceptable, this will be because something like the weak claim holds. On this view, a nudge can meet this requirement if it is easy for the nudgee to contrary-act resist the nudge, as in our Giovanni and Liliana case.


A brief disclaimer: There has been a recent hullaballoo about the efficacy of nudges, sparked by PNAS’s publication of three letters responding to a recent meta-analysis of nudges (the authors reply here). These letters pointed out various issues with not only the meta-analysis, but the whole body of work surrounding interventions often called nudges, and possibly suggesting that, at the very least, we have no evidence for the effectiveness of nudges. However, others take a more moderate line, often pointing to another large study that seems to avoid at least some of these issues (and here is a brief interview with the authors of this large study). Our work in this paper, and blog post, is mainly conceptual, yet for current purposes, we adopt this moderate approach to the effectiveness of nudges.


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