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There’s the nudge

August 18, 2013

Gingeroid is a new blogging candidate. You can read her introduction here, and after her third post we will be voting on her inclusion.

A favorite tactic of the Father-Knows-Best State is the nudge. Formally, a nudge is a choice structure designed to produce a beneficial outcome. Informally, nudging is what happens when somebody’s decided that they know what’s best for everybody. This technique holds a wide appeal because it’s often used to project a morality onto non-moral issues. The moral choice becomes the easiest choice to make because it’s the default option or else it’s given the most appealing presentation. The immoral choices are made more difficult by requiring extra steps to make them or by being made less appealing. It’s easy to shut down opponents because you can argue that nobody’s taking away anybody’s choice.

Last month, Mayor Bloomberg announced his plans to apply nudging to the choice of how a person goes upstairs. Assuming you lack the ability to levitate or have other supernatural means of going to higher floors, you’d choose the stairs or the elevator. Neither choice is inherently moral or immoral. Rather, I should say neither choice is moral or immoral unless you’re fat, afraid of Elephant Nudgebecoming fat, or unaware that you could be fat someday. With this new information, the stairs need to be the moral choice and the elevator the immoral. To enforce this morality on others, the choice to take the stairs must be more appealing and the choice to take the elevator must be made harder. Nobody’s going to take away your choice to use the elevator, but you need to be aware that elevator users are lazy people who’d rather burn electricity to get where they’re going instead of their own caloric stores.

To that end, stairs are going to be made more appealing. You’ll get to stairs before you get to the elevator. Stair use will be positively reinforced through fancy lighting schemes, murals, or music. You could add a motion sensor to trigger a phrase of praise at each landing, reminding the user they’re a really good person for using the stairs. On the flip side, the elevator will be made less appealing. It’ll be further away from the stairs. What kind of lazy person is going to walk further to use the elevator when the stairs are right at the door? It’ll be slower. If you want to get where you’re going in a hurry, take the stairs. And though I doubt even Bloomberg would resort to this level, there’s nothing stopping the elevator soundtrack from being a barrage of negative messaging about the calories you’re not burning from taking the stairs, the electricity you’re consuming, your laziness, your fat destiny, and what a bad person you are. If every trip upstairs requires a five minute wait, you just might head for the stairs.

I’m not a city person myself, so I can only speak to the experiences of suburban and rural living. Perhaps a Costco run isn’t something that takes place in a city and nobody needs to carry their 24 pack of toilet paper and 20 lbs. of staples up to their fifth floor apartment. I would imagine everybody has to move their belongings in at some point. Having moved solo many times, I know what a pain it is to manhandle boxes up one floor. Forget it for five, I’m taking the elevator. Nothing would piss me off more than moving into a building where I have to maneuver hundreds of pounds of books further away because it’s wrong for me to use the elevator and that getting all my stuff upstairs will take longer because someone decided the elevator was the reason I’m fat.

I also have an old knee injury. Fortunately, I sustained it while I was at a socially-acceptable weight and was able to be diagnosed instead of being told to lose weight, but the end result is the same. Climbing stairs is painful. I’ll usually take stairs down, but I’m all about the elevator in the upward direction. If I’m wearing heels, the elevator looks like a great choice in the downward direction as well. You know another perfectly acceptable reason for taking the elevator instead of the stairs? Just because you want to.

Take a look at the Wendy’s kids meal for a nudge-free choice structure. In 2004, Wendy’s pioneered the kid’s meal where you could choose fries or oranges and milk, soda, or Frosty at no extra cost. In fact, they ran ads where the kids made fun of their parents for not getting choices in their value meals. And then Wendy’s extended the no upcharge side choices to adults as well. I could choose a baked potato to go with my burger or a cup of chili to go with my chicken sandwich if I wanted them. But if I want fries, I don’t have to wait an extra 20 minutes, pay a fry surcharge, go to a separate pick-up window, sign a waiver, or do anything differently than I would to get a salad with my meal. People must like having fry alternatives because other fast-food chains have given their customers side options as well.

Choice is a great thing. The more choices the better. I have nothing against the choice to take the stairs. I think it’s great that stairs are being made more appealing. But I object to moralizing that choice. Furthermore, true freedom of choice does not require sabotaging the elevator to nudge people into using the stairs.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. nof permalink
    August 22, 2013 11:06 am

    I wouldn’t mind nicer stairwells. I use the stairs at work and they’re dark and unadorned and industrial and hidden out of sight. The elevator is the center of the building, nicely furnished, and well-lit. I’d love the stairs to be prettier, but because prettier stairs are a nice thing to have, not because I think more people should take them.

    It goes back to every single campaign to eradicate fat people: they things they espouse are generally good ideas, but done for completely the wrong reasons. Encouraging gardening? Great! Making sure children have a safe, fun place to play outside? Great! Expanding access to food? Great! Doing it to get rid of fat people? Nope. These are things that should be done because they’re just good things to do. Not only will these programs stop when they fail to get rid of the fats (and they will or have failed every time), but the moral impetus behind them is completely wrong and taints the whole operation.

    • gingeroid permalink
      August 22, 2013 4:14 pm

      Have you considered proposing a stair beautification project to the managerial types? You might be able to pull a few people together to add some posters, new light bulbs, etc. Couch it in fitness terms if your employer’s into that.

      I believe assigning morality to amoral choices is nothing but trouble, particularly in the context of nudging. It assumes an individual cannot decide what’s best for them and installs a moral authority who will decide what’s best for everyone. We’ve seen it fail over and over again (keeping cigarettes behind the counter, posting calorie counts on menus, etc.) but you always get the people who think their nudging strategy will be different.

  2. vesta44 permalink
    August 22, 2013 12:43 pm

    Not to mention that making these “choices” a moral imperative also implies that those of us who are disabled are “less than” moral, and forget about what it says to those of us who are disabled and fat.
    I’m getting really tired of going somewhere, having an appt on any floor other than the first, having to hunt for the elevator, and then when I do finally find it, find that it’s just barely big enough for me and my mobility scooter. Means that if anyone else comes along after me, they have to wait for the elevator to come back down for them (also means that if my husband comes along, he either has to take the stairs or wait for the elevator to come back down for him and I have to wait for him to be able to take the elevator). And don’t even get me started on how fast those elevator doors close when you’re trying to get on or off the damned thing (I’ve had my scooter caught between the door and the edge a couple of times in those tiny little elevators because DH couldn’t go with me so he could get out first and keep the door from closing).

    • gingeroid permalink
      August 22, 2013 4:27 pm

      Without getting too far into Godwin territory, I tend to get nervous when physical traits are turned into moral issues because it is a slippery slope.

      I bet there’s a goldmine waiting for the person who designs a better elevator. Surely there is demand for larger, stronger, faster, and cheaper models in hospitals, hotels, office buildings, apartment buildings, etc. Cruise ship passengers come in all sizes and mobility levels, yet none of the new ships boast any innovation to their elevator design, location, or numbers. The only noteworthy change I’ve seen in moving people has been Royal Caribbean’s use of escalators to get people on and off their megaships.

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