People Are Surprisingly Willing to Let Themselves Be Manipulated

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The right nudge — a subtle, well-placed behavioral cue — can work all kinds of magic. It can motivate people to do mind-numbingly boring tasks. It can get them to stop checking their phones so often. To eat less sugar. To drink more wine.

That’s the idea behind so-called “nudge theory,” an idea in behavioral economics that people don’t necessarily need reward, punishment, or other heavy-handed tactics to get them to act a certain way, or make a certain choice. All they need is a small tweak to the setup in question — for example, wording an ask for money in a way that will encourage more charitable giving, or rearranging a school cafeteria to make it easier for kids to choose healthy food. In 2014, President Obama even put together a sort of nudge task force, the Social and Behavioral Sciences Team, to investigate ways to spur people to do things like apply for government benefits or pay back loans. The key is that you don’t know you’re being manipulated; you’re just naturally responding to your surroundings.

But as Simon Oxenham recently reported in New Scientist, new research suggests that it doesn’t matter — we’re susceptible to manipulation even when we know it’s taking place. Oxenham explained the study:

Some of the volunteers were told no extra information, while others were told that the default donation was €8, a move inspired by studies that have found that default options influence economic decision-making. But some of these volunteers were also told that the preselected default might have been chosen to influence their behaviour — whereas others were told that it was definitely picked for this purpose. A fifth group was told that the default may have the power to influence their decision, and that it had been purposely picked to increase the amount they gave.

In the end, the nudges made a difference: On average, the people who received them donated €2.87, compared to €1.67 for those who didn’t. But what didn’t make a difference was how much information the participants had about those nudges — the average donation didn’t fluctuate between those who were aware they were being nudged and those who had no idea.

As Oxenham notes, this isn’t the first study to support the idea of transparency around behavioral manipulation. Past research has found that explicit nudges can work for getting people to choose healthier food, for example, and placebos have proven effective even when patients are aware that’s what they’re getting. Turns out, in the right context, we’re pretty open to letting ourselves be manipulated — plus, it’s not like knowing about the nudge would really stop you from getting another glass of wine.

People Are Pretty Willing to Let Themselves Be Manipulated