Fri. Jan 21st, 2022


The play by Ravi Gurumurthy (Opinion, December 29) makes it clear that “nudge theory” was effective during the pandemic.

But what are nudges? They are not typical regulatory instruments – they do not involve mandates, bans or financial incentives. Nudges offers information that indicates a “better” performance, with the option to still do differently.

There are two examples in Gurumurthy’s piece. The first concerns the UK Government’s Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) testing test messages that increase vaccine uptake. The findings do not show actual uptake of vaccines, only vaccination intent. This is not behavior change per se. What one can do is not the same as actually measuring what someone is doing, given what they say they will do.

The second example is the project carried out by Stanford and Yale universities to promote mask wear in villages in rural Bangladesh, where the population was offered free masks, accompanied by information on their importance. The uptake of mask wear increased from 12 percent (control condition, no free mask) to 42 percent (proven intervention, free mask + information). It can be considered a success, but what it also indicates is that if you give people resources (not just information), they use it, although not everyone does. Is it proof of the success of nudges? What’s more, the opinion piece does not mention two other important details about duwies – it they fail and the failures are underreported.

Not only do they fail, we do not really know how big the failure rate is due to publication bias. A study found that 38 out of 100 published articles reported on the effectiveness of the nudges used, while these were rather failures. A second study examined 300 randomized controlled trial experiments performed by the BIT. The authors estimate that between 23-30 percent of all studies conducted by the BIT that were analyzed over a six-year period were not reported, most likely because they failed, reflecting publication bias.

To confidently report on the power of nudges, there must be honest reporting of their failures as well as their successes so that the public can determine for themselves how useful and effective they are.

Magda Osman
Head of Research and Analysis, Center for Science and Policy, University of Cambridge, Cambridgeshire, UK



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