A nudge in the right direction?

15 November 2017

The ethics of using nudge theory to inform public policy is explored in a new book by researchers at Aberystwyth University.

Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the 21st Century critically examines the emergence of the ideas that saw Professor Richard Thaler awarded the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Science in October 2017.

Credited with encouraging more and more people in the UK to give up smoking, nudging principles have also been employed in the design of canteens to promote healthy eating.

It also influenced the Welsh Government-led debate around opt-in/opt-out defaults associated with organ donation registers.

Lead author Professor Mark Whitehead from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, said: “The key focus of the book is a consideration of the ways in which the psychological and behavioural sciences are shaping public policy-making through techniques such as nudging.

“While we feel that the psychological and behavioural sciences have much to offer those charged with delivering public policies, in this book we explore the various ethical and constitutional challenges that related policies generate, and the reasons why these policies may not be as successful as expected”.

The book has received a formal endorsement from Cass Sunstein, who headed Barack Obama’s Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs, where many of these policy initiatives were tested in the US.

Professor Sunstein describes the book as “indispensable and provocative reading for everyone interested in behavioural science and its growing impact on everyday life. A terrific, fact-filled overview, it is genuinely original, and manages a neat trick. It is both highly illuminating and a lot of fun.”

The book has been published in the run-up to the formal launch of the Aberystwyth Behavioural Insights Research Centre (ABi).

Headed by Professors Rhys A Jones and Mark Whitehead, the new interdisciplinary team will support research and teaching on emerging insights into human behaviour and how these can be translated into ethically-oriented and effective public policies.

One of the book’s authors, and the lead researcher on behavioural insights and mindfulness, Rachel Lilley, recently represented the work done by her and the Aberystwyth University team in Welsh Government, at a conference hosted in Westminster.

The event was attended by a number of UK and international politicans and included lead mindfulness speaker Jon Kabat Zinn.

The work, recognised as world leading and discussed in the book, represents a way of making behavioural economics both more effective and ethical by teaching it to policy makers using a mindful pedagogy.

Neuroliberalism: Behavioural Government in the 21st Century is published by Routledge.

The product of eight years of research, the work has been supported by the Leverhulme Trust and then the Economic and Social Research Council.

The authors are Professor Mark Whitehead, Professor Rhys Jones and Rachel Lilley from the Department of Geography and Earth Sciences at Aberystwyth University, Dr Jessica Pykett from the School of Geography, Earth and Environmental Sciences at Birmingham University and Dr Rachel Howell from the School of Social and Political Science at Edinburgh University.


Professor Mark Whitehead
Department of Geography and Earth Sciences
Aberystwyth University
01970 622609 / msw@aber.ac.uk

Arthur Dafis
Communications and Public Affairs
Aberystwyth University
01970 621763 / 07841979452 / aid@aber.ac.uk