No, nudge is not re-marketed psychology.
It is a real, genuine revolution in the way that economic agents are encouraged to act towards a desired objective. I have visited a number of universities on multiple occasions to speak on nudge theory in front of psychology professors. While I’ve been setting up before my presentation, they have often come over to me to remark that “nudge is just re-marketed psychology”.
Yes, nudge borrows knowledge from psychology (and more broadly from all behavioral sciences). However, it offers far more than just a marketing redesign of the accumulated and evolving knowledge.
Psychologists like to understand.
Yes, psychology – spearheaded by Daniel Kahneman – has been identifying decision biases and heuristics since the 1970s. That is undeniable. It has since become more focused on understanding individuals and their decisions – and all of the knowledge that it has produced has greatly profited marketing, management and behavioral economics.
That said, wasn’t the Nobel Prize in Economics awarded to Daniel Kahneman, a psychologist, in 2002 because his research made it possible to better understand the decisions of economic agents?
While participating in juries as a marketing research specialist, I have often audited research work by psychology students. They arrive with an impressive understanding of behaviors and with solid methodologies. But when asked how to exploit their discoveries, they often answer that it is not their job, but that of managers or economists.
Economists like to anticipate.
No, psychology has not fully taken the next step, which is to use the knowledge it has generated to encourage – without compelling – economic agents to act according to a desired objective. This is the (quick) definition of nudge. Despite individual great initiatives of some psychologists. Instead, it mainly came from economics. Why? Because psychology researchers aim to understand, while economics researchers aim to predict. And by using nudge, economists can improve their predictions of the behavior of economic agents and build more effective public policies.
After all, the Nobel Prize in Economics was awarded to Richard Thaler – an economist – in 2017 for his ability to apply the teachings of behavioral economics (and therefore psychology) in the real world.
What if we merge the scientific fields to better advance together?
I find this type of debate – regarding which scientific field made what discovery – disappointing. But I felt the need to react here to a frequent and annoying remark. In France, at least, scientific subjects are labelled and catalogued; psychologists and economists compete to claim and associate innovative concepts with their particular discipline. This is a dull debate: they enrich each other and evolve together.
Determining whether cognitive biases, heuristics and nudge come from psychology or economics is unnecessary and unproductive. The real debate is about what we do with this knowledge – how we put it into action, wherever it comes from. And this is where the interaction between the different disciplinary fields is a real catalyst; nudge reinforces the practical applications of theoretical contributions.