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On the misplaced politics of behavioural policy interventions


Government agencies around the world have begun to embrace the use of behavioural policy interventions (such as the strategic use of default options), which has inspired vigorous public discussion about the ethics of their use. Since any feasible policy requires some measure of public support, understanding when people find behavioural policy interventions acceptable is critical. We present experimental evidence for a ‘partisan nudge bias’ in both US adults and practising policymakers. Across a range of policy settings, people find the general use of behavioural interventions more ethical when illustrated by examples that accord with their politics, but view those same interventions as more unethical when illustrated by examples at odds with their politics. Importantly, these differences disappear when behavioural interventions are stripped of partisan cues, suggesting that acceptance of such policy tools is not an inherently partisan issue. Our results suggest that opposition to (or support for) behavioural policy interventions should not always be taken at face value, as people appear to conflate their attitudes about general purpose policy methods with their attitudes about specific policy objectives or policy sponsors.

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Figure 1: Expected differences in nudge attitudes based on the regression specification for each study.
Figure 2: Graphical overview of studies 1–4.


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We are grateful to D. King at the Harvard Kennedy School for assistance with the data collection for study 3, and to C. McLaughlin and C. Flynn at the Harvard Institute of Politics for assistance with the data collection for study 4. We also thank D. Walters and C. Erner for their useful comments on an earlier draft of this paper. No funders had any role in study design, data collection and analysis, decision to publish or preparation of the manuscript.

Author information




D.T., C.R.F. and T.R. designed all the experiments, D.T. oversaw the data collection for experiments 1 and 2, T.R. oversaw the data collection for experiments 3 and 4, D.T. analysed the data for all the experiments in consultation with C.R.F., and D.T., C.R.F. and T.R. wrote the manuscript.

Corresponding author

Correspondence to David Tannenbaum.

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The authors declare no competing interests.

Supplementary information

Supplementary Information

Supplementary Discussion (S1–S7), Supplementary Figures 1–2, Supplementary References. (PDF 233 kb)

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Tannenbaum, D., Fox, C. & Rogers, T. On the misplaced politics of behavioural policy interventions. Nat Hum Behav 1, 0130 (2017).

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