The Rise of “Nudge” and the Use of Behavioral Economics in Food and Health Policy

The Mercatus Center just published a short piece I wrote on the the application of behavioral economics to food policy.  Here are a few excerpts:

The rising popularity of applying behavioral economics in policymaking—or the creation of policies that “nudge” people into changing their decisions—might seem a bit odd to a food company executive. After all, advertisers and marketers have been using psychological insights for decades to encourage consumers to buy and pay more. Yet a number of bestselling books on the topic of behavioral economics have been published in the last decade, such as Nudge, Predictably Irrational, and Thinking Fast and Slow, and insights from the field are increasingly influencing policy discourse. So while behavioral economics might be seen as simply the merger of economic and psychological insights, it must also be partially understood as an attempt to influence the way government interacts with citizens. While marketers use psychological insights to boost company profits, advocates of the nudge argue that these same insights might be used by government to increase consumers’ well-being.


It is commonly argued that governments should be allowed to enact paternalistic policies and nudge consumers because businesses do it all the time—such policies would supposedly level the playing field. It is of course true that we are constantly bombarded by advertisements and private nudges. But there is a crucial difference between government and private-business nudges. That difference is the role that competition plays in encouraging businesses to respond to consumers. When we are bamboozled or misled by a company in a way we ultimately dislike, we stop buying its product or find a new supplier. This knowledge often (though not always) constrains companies that fear the loss of reputation that might come from undertaking actions that work against their consumers’ desires. These same incentives prompt entrepreneurs to develop better alternatives. Government, with its power to mandate and coerce, lacks the intense competitive pressures provided by the profit motive. None of this is to say that people might not come to accept and appreciate certain forms of government paternalism (who among us now bristles at seat belt laws?), it is only to say that the fruitful application of behavioral economics to food policy is much more complicated than is often supposed.

I also point out what I think is a key asymmetry: behavioral economic results are almost always used to advocate for more regulation and intervention, but at least some behavioral economic results could be interpreted to have the opposite implication.  I also give an assessment on how behavioral economics can be fruitfully used by governments and companies alike.