Don’t Nudge On Me

In a recent New York Times column, David Brooks describes American culture as “mentally lazy.” Overcoming that, he argues, requires a dose of what he calls “social paternalism” in public policy.

Is he right?

I thought about that yesterday, as I drank a can of pink grapefruit-flavored San Pellegrino while sitting in an old family friend’s living room. The friend had just returned from swimming laps and wore Speedo jammers—knee-length, spandex-tight swim trunks, a jarring sight on an adult male. “Mary,” he said. “Here’s the problem with the media today: No one can just sit with someone they disagree with and listen to their point of view anymore.” (Was I not listening to a man in Speedo jammers with all manner of civility?)

He continued, “America wants a media outlet that will provide civil disagreement; she just doesn’t know it yet.”

He presented, in effect, an interesting anomaly. Conflict around an idea creates buzz. Yet, bombast causes sources to lose credibility with media consumers. “News” coverage and opinion pieces dwell in a Catch-22: The ridiculous get attention while the substantive get lost in the fray—and then the ridiculous get dismissed anyway. Subsequently, the public, though engaged in a whirlwind of dramatic press, tunes out.

Where I differ with AMiJ (Adult Male in Jammers) is on what it is the public wants. Why search for an even-keeled news sources when loud commentary and feuding pundits attract so many eyeballs? A talk show where two or more parties calmly discuss current events without exaggeration would not do as well as the over-the-top pundits.

It’s not just news. In the same thread, reality television gains traction. Trashy TV shows enter the cultural mainstream when we self-deprecatingly call, say, The Real Housewives a guilty pleasure. Yet, any time we watch or discuss such shows we encourage more of them being made. As much as Americans like to complain about the media, the ultimate responsibility for the media we consume lies not with newspaper or network executives, but with us.

So is David Brooks right that American culture is “mentally lazy”? Perhaps. But on whether that carries any implications for public policy, the answer is a firm, “No.” Neither government nor AMiJ knows any better what “we” want. Brooks and others may find biased, bombastic, or dumbed-down media objectionable, but so what?

From the Fairness Doctrine to decency standards, no amount of regulation can nudge us toward “better” media consumption. And that’s why initiatives like the Obama administration’s “nudge squad” are bound to prove ineffective—but not before throwing a lot of taxpayer dollars away and annoying the general populace with their mindless hectoring.

And that’s the problem with initiatives like the Obama administration’s proposed Behavioral Insights Team, or “nudge squad.” The administration plans to investigate how behavioral psychology can aid a soft paternalistic approach to public policy. Maya Shankar, the twenty-something Yale alumna who heads the team, cited UK Prime Minister David Cameron’s implementation of such a team as inspiration, saying that Britain’s Behavioral Insights Team “successfully identified and tested interventions that will further advance priorities of the British government.” In other words, it uses social psychology to further a government agenda. If nudging policies in the United States follow that model, I shudder to think whose interests are being considered.