The Ethics of Influence


The Ethics of Influence –
Government in the Age of Behavioral Science
By Cass R. Sunstein

Cambridge University Press – £19.99

At the outset of this very readable book’s initial chapter ‘The Age of Behavioural Science,’ author Cass R. Sunstein writes: ”We live in an age of psychology and behavioural economics – the behavioural sciences. For profit, companies are using behavioural research every day. They want to learn how people think and to use that learning to make money […].”

Indeed they do, although to any ethically minded person’s thinking, where does one actually draw the line?

For instance, having lived in the United States for a number of years, it is impossible to watch television. Period. This is because advertising literally dominates the airwaves. No sooner has an introductory theme-tune ended before the viewer is annoyingly informed of the latest toothpaste. Or health insurance policy; which, to my mind, is subliminal bad, artistic ethics. Imagine having spent several yours of your life toiling over a heartfelt or at least artistically stunning screenplay, only to have it accepted and broadcast, and then ultimately interrupted every three or four minutes by Toyota or Haagen Dazs?

Behavioral economics? How about brazenly capitalist economics?

Either way, this most enjoyable of studies consists of eight chapters that most coherently traverse the quagmire of both ethical and non-ethical (political) persuasion, and it does so in such a way that is formidably comprehensive and believable. Its 202 pages (not including ‘Appendix A – American Evaluations of Thirty-Four Nudges, ‘Appendix B – Survey Questions’ and Appendix C – Executive Order 13707: Using Behavioral Science Insights to Better Serve the American People’) most certainly sets the mind to thinking in a partially abstract manner to that of the ethical norm. As Professor Lucia A. Reisch, Behavioral Economist at Copenhagen Business School more than substantiates: ”Behavioral regulation has spread to governments worldwide. This brilliant book tackles the many myths that have evolved around the use of behavioral economics in politics. Cass Sunstein explains in clear words how (and why) the core values of an Ethical State – welfare, autonomy, dignity, and self-government – are indeed best served by governments that carefully base their policies on an empirical foundation and use behavioral insights as additional effective policy tools.”

A fine example of this is a continuation of the initial quote at the outset of this review: ”From the ethical point of view, there are large differences between coercion and influence […]. Many of the most objectionable forms of coercion come from governments, which may threaten people with jail, or with large fines, if they do not do exactly what public officials want. In his great book On Liberty, John Stuart Mill argued that coercion was unacceptable unless it was designed to prevent ”harm to others.” Mill’s target was the use of force.”

In this day and ultimately media saturated day of ethical persuasion, coercion is a tactic that is subliminally enforced by way of both profound and pathetic advertising. Governments and newspapers know this all too well.

Trouble is, it’s usually the wrong governments and the wrong newspapers that have essentially refined the very fine art of diversionary coercion; usually at the behest of supposedly ‘by the people, for the people.’

That said, The Ethics of Influence – Government in the Age of Behavioral Science most certainly contains a cornucopia of new information on peoples’ sociological attitudes towards a vast range of choice architecture and forever changing mandates – Brexit perhaps being the most pertinent, prevalent and provocative of recent political examples.

Diversionary coercion at its finest m’Lord…

On the slightly down side, the book has a fundamentally American slant that I find a little irksome, even if only for the nigh continuous use of the word/term, nudge – which is highlighted by Eric J. Johnson, Professor of Business at Columbia University, when he writes: ”Cass Sunstein knows more than anyone about nudging.”

He does, but again, it’s the aforementioned advertising that remains at the quintessential vanguard of this book’s influential/ethical premise.

In the book’s fifth chapter,’ ‘Fifty Shades of Manipulation’ (even the title is an evocative form of renowned advertising), the author quotes from what he terms ”ranks the most powerful scenes in the history of American television […] Mad Men.”

Now I have watched a couple of episodes of Mad Men, and have to confess to it being badly written and horribly, horribly acted. Yet herein, Sunstein quotes Don Draper, the star of the series: ”In Greek ”nostalgia” literally means, ”the pain from an old wound.” It’s a twinge in your heart, far more powerful than memory alone. This device isn’t a spaceship. It’s a time machine. It goes backwards, forwards. It takes us to a place where we ache to go again. It’s not called the Wheel. It’s called a Carousel. It lets us travel the way a child travels. Around and around, and back home again… to a place where we know we are loved.”

Not only is the above utter hogwash of the first order, it makes for the most saccharine, unpleasant and confined of reading. Although more than that, it (almost) lets the book down.

Sunstein (who from 2009 to 2012, was Administrator of the White House Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs) has already written a number of books of a similar persuasion, including: Why Nudge?, Valuing Life: Humanizing the Regulatory State, Choosing Not to Choose: Understanding the Value of Choice and Constitutional Personae: Heroes, Soldiers, Minimalists and Mutes; of which The Ethics of Influence may well be the most thought provoking and least answerable to big business.

An occasional nudge too far perhaps, but a fine read nevertheless.

David Marx


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