Nudges – Part Two

The “nudge” is still a hot topic. In my last post I discussed the concept of “nudging,” of providing little incentives or removing annoyances, inconveniences and unnecessary barriers in order to influence behaviors–in this case, behaviors that encourage students to stay in school and graduate in a timely fashion.

Nudges are powerful, as noted in the articles cited in the last post. Probably the best discussion of the concept of nudges is found in the 2009 book¬†Nudge (how original) by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (who, not incidentally, then worked for the Obama administration in an organization designed to apply the principles of “nudge” to a variety of government and policy issues).

So yes–nudges (and the behavioral economic and social psychology theories and research that support the concept) are powerful.

But–there is almost always a but.

A recent (February 23) article in the NY Times, while acknowledging the power of the nudge, also reminded us of the power of reality.

Nudges can’t overcome material realities.

As Eduardo Porter notes, nudges are successful only when the capacity to act is present. Nudges are just that–a way to nudge people to do what they “ought” to do, and what they have the capability to do if they only so chose to do so.

Nudges don’t work when the capacity is missing.

Porter’s key example was in trying to encourage people to save more for retirement. We certainly ought to do so, and many of us have the capacity–but not all. People who live from paycheck to paycheck often lack the capacity to squeeze out funds for retirement.

Likewise, at times, for our students. We can (and should regardless) keep working to eliminate unnecessary barriers to student success–help students register on time, provide assistance when needed, encourage students to seek out assistance–but nudges may not work when a student faces a real economic choice: Do I register now knowing I will need to pay my bill soon, or do I wait to register so the money that would be needed to pay my school costs can be used for rent? Or food? Or medicine? Do I buy the required textbooks for my class, or do I use that money to buy clothes for my children?

We need to continue to address these material realities at the same time we keep trying to nudge our students to success. Without that capacity, a nudge is just another barrier.

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