Living Under the Influence: Behaviourism and the Hidden Cost of Intervening in Human Complexity

Zachary Rogers

Research output: Contribution to specialist publicationArticle


Much of that discourse is critical of the destructive effect these information structures have had on democracy and by extension, the capacity of society to deliberate, tolerate, and operate.5 But Sunstein and a number of prominent behavioural and cognitive scientists were done with traditional notions of deliberation a while back.6 Of the tools and methods of the 'wiki-verse' being experimented with in tech companies, banks, insurers, commerce, and government at the time, he was sanguine, stating 'They will be used far more ambitiously than they are now.'That few actual existing citizens of democracy were informed of this is, one supposes, a case of touché. Popular and controversial, Nudge was a favourite of President Obama's, who appointed Sunstein to head the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs which he ran for three years.7 Similar enthusiasm was evident under David Cameron in the UK, and the Turnbull government set up the Behavioural Economics Team of the Australian Government (BETA) in 2015.8 Eschewing traditional regulatory reform in favour of the latest theories about behavioural modification, Sunstein's predictions were manifest in what became known as 'behaviouralism' Critics, however, looked beyond the veracity of nudging's stated claims (particularly attractive to fiscallyconstrained bureaucracies) to examine its underlying assumptions. [...]the study made things worse.11 It seemed certain types of irrationality might be okay in certain circumstances; not okay in others. The World Bank released a report12 in 2015 effusively promoting the benefits of governmental behavioural intervention, and by then, dozens of countries around the world were standing up their own 'nudge units'.13 The justification of this form of liberal paternalism has always hinged on tenuous premises, and nowhere have these been explored and defended more than in Sunstein's own work.
Original languageEnglish
Pages3-9, 32
Number of pages8
Specialist publicationAQ (Australian Quarterly)
Publication statusPublished - Jan 2022


  • Behavioral
  • Political and legal power
  • epistemology
  • Technology
  • Digital


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