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Are 'Nudging Technologies' Ethical? 227

An anonymous reader writes "Researchers are debating the ethics of so-called 'nudging technologies' — ambient technology systems designed to shape or influence human behavior, such as an installation which encourages people to take the stairs rather than the lift by using hanging colored balls to represent stairs vs lift usage. A researcher on the project said: 'Most people, when we asked them, "Do you think this has changed your behavior," they said no. But the data showed that it had actually done that.'"
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Are 'Nudging Technologies' Ethical?

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  • advertisements (Score:4, Insightful)

    by cheeks5965 ( 1682996 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:01PM (#36479078)
    Isn't this the goal of advertizing? To change people's behavior without them realizing it's being changed? Now we'll have all sorts of subliminal installations guiding us to the desired purchases.
    • No I guess what works are things like Congestion Charge.
      You have to pay 15 - 20$ to drive into the City.
      It somehow 'discourages' you and if not, it will just be 95$ or whatever works.

    • "...she stumbled upon a solution whereby nearly 99% of all test subjects accepted the program as long as they were given a choice, even if they were only aware of that choice at a near-unconscious level"

      Sounds familar?
    • I know I buy useless garbage that I see on commercials all the time, remember commercials for a long time (even though I forget what they were about almost instantly), and change my behavior (even though I don't). But they're clearly brainwashing me... even though they're not. They're magical!

  • by RoverDaddy ( 869116 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:04PM (#36479112) Homepage
    It's not even really a question in the study being described. From TFA:

    "There's lots of discussion about nudging technologies - whether it's ethical, whether it's not - but people still get to choose,"

    There, that's as much as TFA talks about ethics.
    How about asking whether -advertising- is ethical? At least these 'nudging technologies' are intended to -help- the person affected.

    • To be pedantic, Those nudging technologies are being used to help people..but they could also be used for many things. They're tools.

    • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) *

      > How about asking whether -advertising- is ethical?

      Exactly the right question. Strip away the tech angle and this is just basic marketing being practiced. And that ship has sailed, for good or ill we aren't getting rid of advertising and marketing... even if it were possible to do so.

      > At least these 'nudging technologies' are intended to -help- the person affected.

      Said he who considers himself superior to the lesser beings being nudged. I'll be the judge of what is good for me and you figure out

      • > At least these 'nudging technologies' are intended to -help- the person affected.

        Said he who considers himself superior to the lesser beings being nudged. I'll be the judge of what is good for me and you figure out what is best for you. Now toss me another Brawndo will ya.

        I think you're saying this sarcastically, but I never really understood the people who actual make these kinds of arguments. Sure, there are many topics where we may all disagree. But if there's a simple nudge that helps people eat more vegetables and less sweets, then who can honestly be against that. And, I'm not just saying it because I think all those fat people need the help. As a decently healthy adult, I don't think it is a bad thing if I am nudged towards a healthier diet or a little more physical a

        • by jmorris42 ( 1458 ) *

          > But if there's a simple nudge that helps people eat more vegetables and less sweets,
          > then who can honestly be against that.

          I'm all for people making the argument you should eat more vegetables, hell if I'd eaten a few more and chugged a few less Cokes I might not have been diagnosed with diabetes this month. We should be openly debating ideas. Where I get creeped out is when the do gooders don't want to reason anymore, they want to do the jedi mind trick. Same for marketers who don't do straight

    • Advertising *is* nudging, no question. It frequently manipulates decisions instead of persuading.
    • I was thinking along the lines of management coming in and saying:
      "Either we hang some colored lights around that will make you feel like taking the stairs or we put: 'Take the stairs rather than the elevator whenever possible' on your list of yearly goals."
      I would really prefer the former. Just because I don't think that colored lights encourage me to take the stairs doesn't mean its unethical for them to do so. Balls that light up depending on whether or not I'm being green or not are preferable to most o

      • I'd have just put some fake rubber vomit on the escalator then see how many people take the stairs instead.

    • How about asking whether -advertising- is ethical?

      Ethical by whose standards?

  • by darkwing_bmf ( 178021 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:05PM (#36479130)

    ...that can be used for good or for evil.

    • ...that can be used for good or for evil.

      Like The Force!

  • and now we have the "nudge"? Whats next, the "bitchslap"?

  • Yay! Mentalists are really good at altering your behavior or implanting suggestions without you realizing it. It's kind of awesome to watch, and in a way, disturbing. I actually wonder how susceptible I am to all of this, myself...

    • by Zirnike ( 640152 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:19PM (#36479290) Journal

      I actually wonder how susceptible I am to all of this, myself...

      I hope everyone liked the post I made snowgirl make.

    • Pretty straightforward actually. A mentalist will exude confidence to such a degree that you, I, or anyone else becomes submissive to their ideas. Being a mentalist means tapping into this primal human behavior as a method of directing. On a subconscious level, we have the ability to determine if someone's confidence is encapsulating the truth, or a lie. A mentalists however must not let their subject/s even approach the concept of questioning at that level.

      One might say that a sociopath is a natural born m

  • by stating_the_obvious ( 1340413 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:07PM (#36479156)
    Nudging technologies have been around for as long as people have traded one good for another. Prices ending in .99, "buy one, get one free", and the ever popular "act now" are all examples of efforts to nudge someone to action. It can only be a good thing that these subliminal forces are finally being harnessed to encourage positive behavior (e.g., stairs versus elevators or washing hands after using the bathroom)
    • But the more we understand free will, the less it seems to exist. How far will it go? What fun is a gambling without the perception of chance? What fun is life without the perception of choice? I'm not faulting the research, but I'm considering getting annoyed at the universe.
      • But the more we understand free will, the less it seems to exist.

        I'm not faulting the research, but I'm considering getting annoyed at the universe.

        What would be the point if there isn't any free will? Wouldn't that simply mean that It (the universe) wanted you to know it was screwing with you?

        • Re: (Score:2, Informative)

          by sconeu ( 64226 )

          You can choose a ready guide in some celestial voice
          If you choose not to decide, you still have made a choice
          You can choose from phantom fears and kindness that can kill
          I will choose a path that's clear
          I will choose freewill

          (Courtesy of Rush)

    • I think the unspoken current of this conversation, however, is if and when it's ethical to use completely deliberate nudging on someone's subconscious. The advertising and pricing phrases you mention still communicate directly, even if they're largely attacking the subconscious by exploiting the lizard brain or playing to societal norms. In contrast, when you talk about applying these sorts of experiments to marketing you'd be asking whether it's ethical to play soothing music if it increases sales by keepi
    • by hawguy ( 1600213 )

      And most malls and department stores use nudging to encourage you to use the escalators instead of the elevator, even though the elevator is often more convenient. When I walk in my local mall, the escalator is hugely apparent, but the elevators are off to the side and not in direct line of sight. The escalators are typically less convenient to go up multiple floors, since you need to go up a floor, then walk around a semi-circle to get to the next escalator and repeat until you reach the floor you want.


  • Oblig. Fun Theory (Score:5, Interesting)

    by Jim Hall ( 2985 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:08PM (#36479172) Homepage

    The Fun Theory does this from time to time. My favorite is the piano stairs [] in Stockholm. It's a classic example of a "nudging" effect, and yes - I do consider it "ethical".

    Of course, the question is if the "nudging" effect lasts over the long haul. I wonder how many of these people would have used the piano stairs after a few days, or a week?

    • by Kugrian ( 886993 )

      How many people went up and down the stairs several times and messed up the traffic?

      • Traffic is still probably moving faster in those cases than with the escalator. It's also giving them that much more exercise. I think that's a fair trade.

    • Not sure about the long haul, but I would assume that stair usage and hangover severity would be inversely proportional to one another.
    • My favorite is the piano stairs [] in Stockholm.

      Well that at least makes sense for how it influences people into taking the stairs. Step on a step, instant positive feedback.

      I RTFA, and I still don't get how those colored balls could influence people to take the stairs.

      • I RTFA, and I still don't get how those colored balls could influence people to take the stairs.

        My theory is that they just looked interesting enough to encourage people to take the stairs for a closer look at them.

      • by vux984 ( 928602 )

        I RTFA, and I still don't get how those colored balls could influence people to take the stairs.

        There's a feedback in that the red and grey balls are used to score stairs and elevator usage. If more people use the stairs the 'red' balls score better, and the 'healthy choice' "wins".

        Turns out people were willing to make a small lifestyle change towards a healthy choice just for that little bit of feedback.

        Then add some peer pressure... few wanted to be the guy that lowered the healthy choices score.

  • We can say it's unethical but it has happened the world over for many years now and in less noticeable ways than signs. The source of this isn't always the government of that area. Marketing is a form of this for example. The ways people can be manipulated are not limited to just this. TV is a very good medium. There are ways this can be applied in other media but video tends to be the most effective. Social media is also very powerful. As far as this altering your experience (which shapes the individual)
  • Nudging technologies have existed ever since people had technology I would presume. Exit signs, Stop lights, one way street signs all of these things are meant to direct people in a certain way. I though the way the designers made an atrium where your choices would affect the environment in a fun and interesting way was great. You are basically rewarding behavior you want people to choose with a very modest display, but one that will encourage them to monitor each other's behavior and have a positive out
  • by ArhcAngel ( 247594 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:11PM (#36479202)
    I hang someone by the color of their balls and all.
  • Why do you think America has been going bankrupt trying to keep up with the Jones next door.

    Or walk into a casino? When someone wins large lights and very loud sounds are made while the machine dispatches the cash slowly all for everyone to see that someone else made money.

    • What might be an even better example is one of the Vegas casinos (forgot which one) that has a moving sidewalk to take you from the street to the entrance doors, but leaving you walk on your own.
    • Let me guess: you haven't been into a casino, and your experience is based on some movies you saw somewhere. Slot machines don't give out bags of coins any more, and they haven't for a while. You get a receipt to give to the cashier, or feed into another slot machine. Slot jockeys don't give a shit if the person next to them wins, they don't even shrug. They just keep on playing. Earthquake, fire alarm, casino being robbed, it doesn't matter.

      "Keeping up with the Joneses" is materialism. You don't ge

      • They might not care if the person next to them wins. However, they still need to hear that rings all around that people are winning. It drives the belief that their big win is just around the corner.
  • I'm actually an industrial engineering student who studies cognitive ergonomics (pretty much social engineering). I'm actually quite interested in "nudging technologies" and am doing a bit of research in related fields. I took a Psych class that discussed the relevance of subliminal messaging and covered a bit of the controversy surrounding it. The professor mentioned something strange: subliminal messaging doesn't make an individual do anything they otherwise would not do if persuaded. You can only get st
    • Re:Ambient Design (Score:5, Interesting)

      by lgw ( 121541 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:38PM (#36479504) Journal

      You're going to find an internship at a Disney park, right? The "social engineering" there is masterful, as well as the more ordinary engineering just to allow herds of people to move freely without getting in each other's way (I still find the Orlando airport the easiest big airport to move through thanks to their influence). For example, employee areas aren'tusually blocked by doors or even signs; instead the colors and architecture are carefully chosen to make customers feel uncomfortable, and nudge them back to where they're supposed to be, without explicitly marking areas "off limits" as you walk through the park.

      I've had to deal w/ individuals who throw their newly emptied coke bottles into the trash when the trash can is directly next to the trash can.

      Wel, eveyrone does that, but I also throw my everyhting into the trash can when it's next to the recycle bin, just for the joy of pissing off hippies, so be careful what you design (but then some jerks throw normal stinky trash into recycling bins where I live: now that sucks).

  • by Palmsie ( 1550787 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:14PM (#36479240)

    Psychologists study human behavior... then change it! What kind of world do we live in, Dr. Milgrim?

  • by tunapez ( 1161697 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:15PM (#36479252)

    If people want, or allow themselves, to be shepherded and corralled, I guess there's no stopping progress.

    • Yes and how many people use the sheep analogy...
      Humans are Animals. We have traits that are rational, from careful thought and instincts. Humans are social animals, like other social animals we take cues and we actively try to be the rest of the people. You would normally feel silly if you wore a suit and tie to the beach. As well you would feel just as out of place if you went to work in your bathing suit.

      We take cues every day, and it models our behavior, if we break out it is often due to a conscious

      • rational, from careful thought and instincts

        I really don't see how desiring to live is necessarily logical.

        Humans are social animals

        I see some people talk about humans as if they are all the same. Why is it not possible for one of them to not be a "social animal"?

        • I see some people talk about humans as if they are all the same. Why is it not possible for one of them to not be a "social animal"?

          If you're talking about yourself, I hope you see the irony of making that statement while casually engaging in a discussion with a complete stranger. :)

          If you aren't... pretty much the only way for a human not to be a social animal is to go live survive by himself in some wilderness without having learned to communicate. Otherwise, you're going to need to mingle with some sort

  • Why would this be unethical? There is no harm in dropping hints for the masses to engage in activities that are truly good for them and perhaps even (gasp) causing them to actually think about behaviors to which they never previously gave any thought. As long as the message is not deceptive, an outright lie, or encouraging something truly harmful, then carry on.

    And really, how is this any different than those Saturday morning PSAs put out by the Ad Council back in the 70s and 80s that encouraged people to

  • Let's not call it "nudging technology" and call it what it is -- marketing. Okay, that's not completely accurate either, but where we see these methods used most often is in marketing. Some campaigns push for "good things" like keeping the roads clean ("Don't Mess With Texas!") and others are for selling things that make people fat or often result in other negative consequences.

    "There is still a choice" and it's true. I am largely (though not completely) immune to those types of guidance mechanisms. I s

  • If so, then yes, of course it's unethical.

  • by hayne ( 545353 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @04:45PM (#36479594)
    I guess the fly in urinal [] is a classic example of nudging technology.
  • Why do people ask "is this technology ethical"? Ethics is about application of choice; the technology itself is not inherently good or evil. One example of a nudging technology is the fact that the operating handle for a garbage truck's compactor is nowhere near the rear opening of the compactor; this actually arose from a lawsuit where a man lost part of his foot because he stood on the back while operating the compactor. As a result now, it's a lot easier to operate garbage trucks safely than in a dang

  • My initial reaction to this (of course I didn't RTFA) is that it's ludicrous to discuss whether it's ethical to try to influence people. Forcing someone to do something is unethical, but trying to influence others is something we do almost every time we interact with another human. Somebody really needs better ethical problems to ponder.
  • Do the opposite or nothing at all!

  • by steveha ( 103154 ) on Friday June 17, 2011 @05:46PM (#36480294) Homepage

    One of the examples from TFA is a set of colored balls, hanging in an open space by in a stairwell. The bright, cheerful balls represent people taking the stairs, and the grey balls represent people taking the elevators (lifts). There are pressure pads used to count people, and the counts are used to estimate stair usage and elevator usage. The colored balls are just a visual indicator.

    According to the article, people say things like "You took the elevator... you are making the grey balls go up, you know" or similar.

    And now, my point: the colored balls are not what people care about. People already have an opinion about whether stairs or elevator are "better" in any sense, and the colored balls display is leveraging that. I could use the same technology to track how many people look out the East window, vs how many people look out the West window, and I'm pretty sure nobody would care which color of balls is "winning" at the moment. The colored balls in and of themselves have no power.

    I remember in Junior High School a teacher waxed philosophical about wrist watches. "Just think, we strap them on and then obey them. We rush through lunch because of them. A tiny and simple device can drastically shape our behavior!" (Probably a horribly inaccurate quote; this is a memory I haven't thought of in years.) Even at the time I rejected this thesis. It seemed to me (and still seems to me) that the watch itself has no power; it is the whole structure of civilization, at least where it is intersecting with your own life, that makes you care what time it is. If you took the watch off, you would still hurry through lunch, because you need to be done with lunch by some specific time. Indeed, without the watch, you might hurry more, since you might not be sure how much time you have.

    The map is not the territory. Neither a watch nor colored balls nor any of the other stuff in TFA can compel behavior. Simple ergonomics can give a mild nudge; tricks that leverage things people care about can give a stronger nudge, but only because the people already care about something.

    So the whole "ethics" thing is overblown. And as others have noted, that was one throwaway line from TFA; it's odd that it was chosen for the summary.


IN MY OPINION anyone interested in improving himself should not rule out becoming pure energy. -- Jack Handley, The New Mexican, 1988.