Andrew Lansley, the health secretary, has suggested that:
"If we are constantly lecturing people and trying to tell them what to do, we will actually find that we undermine and are counterproductive in the results that we achieve"The newsworthiness of this story is, of course, not because the media wants a debate about which are the most effective cognitive incentives in the public health arena. It's because Lansley is going up against popular cheeky-cockney-chef Jamie Oliver.
Putting that aside - and I've no idea if Lansley is correct on this individual issue - he does have a valid point. Telling people what to do is, in many situations, ineffective or counterproductive.
Anecdote alert: a Polish friend claimed over dinner today that Britain has, by far, the highest number of nagging public health warnings of any country: posters, TV ads, product packaging. This may or may not be accurate, but it rings true.
And it chimes with the effects of recent research by the Universities of Southampton and Manchester: 'nudge' approaches are, broadly, more effective than 'think' approaches. Appealing to citizens' rationality is hard work, meets (or causes) resistance, and arguably can entrench existing attitudes instead of changing them. If instead we redesign the choice architecture in people's environment - of which they are hardly even aware - we can influence their behaviour much more powerfully.
More on that research later, as I went to a very interesting presentation of its results last week.
A random note: while looking up that confirmation bias link, I came across an article by Peter Suber. I had forgotten about him, but as the inventor of Nomic, he's got to have some fascinating things to say. I'll be starting here and delving further in the near future.