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Talking politics and ethics of behaviour change

In September I will be giving a workshop paper at Policy & Politics 2015 entitled Setting the public machine on a dangerous path? On the ethical and political dimensions of behaviour change policy.

Here’s the abstract:

Increased interest in ‘nudge’ policy, and behaviour change more broadly, has been one of the most prominent developments in policy thinking over the last five years. Ideas associated with ‘nudge’ have generated broad interest in policy circles and within academia. The agenda has elicited critical engagement from across the social sciences and humanities. In part this is because the significant lack of conceptual clarity associated with the term invites interrogation. In part it is because some of the claims made in support of the approach have run ahead of the evidence of its efficacy. But most importantly it is because the nudge approach to policy design raises deep questions about our concept of the individual, the relationship between the state and the citizen, and the limits to legitimate state action. Nudge has given credence to the argument that policy should build on recognition of cognitive inequality and rekindled debates about the acceptability of paternalism, in whatever form. There are also concerns that nudge-type policies offer governments the power to evade traditional accountability mechanisms.

This paper brings together several strands of the debate around nudge and competing perspectives on behaviour change.  It argues that although clarity over the dimensions of behaviour change mechanisms and policy may be increasing, in the process the debate moves further from the archetypal notions of nudging which draw most heavily on behavioural economics and increasingly embraces a more socially-embedded understanding of the individual. While conceptual clarity may well have increased, and at the same time the ethical and political questions associated with behaviour change have been better delineated, convergence regarding the answers to those questions has been much less evident. And it is these questions that press most urgently on the debate as behaviour change policy becomes institutionalised.

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