Orangefest footnote and the art of nudging

Long ago, I decided that the influence of behavioural psychology was a very mixed blessing indeed. In marketing, it’s applied to manipulate our desires and needs to get us to do what others want, the very essence of the soft sell. So if you want to clean up the image, say, of the clunking old Twelfth to the wider world and impress the tourists – create Orangefest. Fortunately, people in the marketing world are their own best critics. Here’s one, Tim Footman in the Guardian, showing some unexpected sympathy for unreconstructed Orangemen, struggling with what difference Orangefest is supposed to make.

“We still get to wear our bowler hats, don’t we?”
“Oh yes.”
“And play our flutes and drums? And not like Catholics very much?”
“Of course.”
“So what’s changed?”
“Well, there’s a new name…”

The picture becomes altogether cloudier when it come to politics. Pondering as you do and I just have been, whether politicians can make much of a difference when recession bites, I came across a bright idea from top Tory boy George Osborne, The Art of Nudging.

We’ve been engaging with leading experts in this field, including Robert Cialdini, the author of Influence, and Richard Thaler, the co-author of Nudge, to develop policies that will work in a post-bureaucratic age where Labour’s clunking tax and regulation measures have all too often failed

Wow, really George? Have you found the magic bullet? Now read on…

Basically “nudging ” is based on the familiar idea of appealing to self-interest to get us to do what the politicians want. You “nudge” people along, rather than hitting them over the head with so many do -and -don’t laws and regulations, geddit?

But New Labour guru Matthew Taylor, once Tony Blair’s strategy chief, and blogging today in Mick’s other space, warns against hyping what Nudging can achieve:

Some commentators suggest ‘nudging’ as an alternative to legislation but of the three nudges Osborne advocates this morning in the Guardian two require new national regulation and one new local rules. Nudging is not a brand new technique that avoids the problems of all the other techniques, such as perverse outcomes, bad implementation or cheating. It is simply – as Thaler and Sunstein make clear in their book – an alternative frame for policy making involving a more subtle evidence-based way of thinking about human behaviour,

Beguiling if you’re in opposition to avoid “clunking” hard policies choices, but no magic bullet after all. As for the mere people, take care as usual not to be conned by soft spin.

Behavioural psychology however subtle in theory is so often crude in practice, simply because it can never to match the complexities of the human character. There’s no substitute for making informed choices after rational debate.

Politicians and the public (and even Orange folk), tread softly.

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