But that intuition was not tested experimentally in advance, and observational studies of calorie displays are inconclusive. One study found that they had no effect, but another found a 6-percent decrease in calories purchased. The federal rule added a requirement that chain restaurants also post a suggested total daily caloric intake, perhaps on the assumption that telling consumers that a Big Mac has 550 calories will mean more when framed by the advice that an adult should eat about 2,000 calories a day. But a recent study undermined this intuition, too: Benchmarks did not reduce purchased calories, and may have ironically promoted consumption of higher-calorie items.
Implementing untested nudges has real costs. According to the federal government, the Obamacare calorie rule imposes a new 14.5-million-hour paperwork burden, and first-year compliance costs for businesses could total $537 million. If the benefits of a government intervention are not expected to outweigh its costs, then doing nothing will often be the better policy choice.
Even if testing shows a nudge to be effective, it will rarely if ever benefit everyone who is subject to it. (In some cases, such as making posthumous organ donation the default, nudges do not directly benefit any nudgee, although there may be other reasons to support such proposals.) Although the Obama administration claims that its nudges will “help people to achieve their goals,” no government can know and simultaneously promote the many goals of a diverse citizenry. Nor do all people make irrational choices in the absence of nudges; some targets of a nudge will already have made choices that reflect their considered preferences.
But all this is true of every act of lawmaking. Under the Supreme Court’s expansive commerce clause jurisprudence, the regulators who would nudge us already can, in most cases, shove us instead. And shoves, unlike nudges, prevent people from making choices that differ from the government’s.
When some choice has to be the default – everyone must either save for retirement or not – nudges sensibly make it easier for people to choose what most of them prefer (or what is expected to yield the greatest social benefits), while allowing the minority to make a different choice with minimal effort.
Those who fear that nudging will put us on a slippery slope to an Orwellian nanny state ought to recognize that we are already on that slope. Nudges offer an offramp to a more sure-footed terrain that people across the political spectrum should prefer.
Michelle N. Meyer is a professor of bioethics, law and policy at Union Graduate College. Christopher Chabris is a psychology professor at Union College and the coauthor of “The Invisible Gorilla: How Our Intuitions Deceive Us.”