Sugary-drink bans and other fads: When pols try to nudge good behavior

New approaches to altering personal behavior – such as banning soda, curbing gamblers, or raising alcohol prices – can fail without the bonds of community to back them.

AP photo
New York City Mayor Michael Bloomberg looks at a 64-ounce cup, as Lucky's Cafe owner Greg Anagnostopoulos, left, stands behind him, during a news conference at the cafe in New York March 12. New Yorkers were still free to gulp from huge sugary drinks Tuesday, after a judge struck down the city's pioneering ban on supersized sodas just hours before it was supposed to take effect.

Last year, Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard proposed that gamblers who play slot machines be required to set a maximum amount they would lose for the day. She then backed off the idea of “mandatory pre-commitment.” It had too much political opposition.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron proposed last year to fix higher prices for alcoholic drinks. He said it would save 900 lives a years. Binge drinking accounts for half the alcohol consumed in Britain. On Wednesday, he abandoned the idea. His own party opposed it.

In New York City, a plan by Mayor Michael Bloomberg to ban food-service providers from serving sugary drinks larger than 16 ounces was stopped by a court on Monday. The judge said the mayor should not have bypassed the city council and that the plan is “arbitrary and capricious.”

What do these defeats have in common? They show the difficulty governments have in trying new or different approaches in social engineering, many of them aimed at “nudging” people toward less-harmful behavior.

The approach, called “soft paternalism,” keeps running up against old issues, such as a strong desire for personal liberty, the commercial interests of entrenched industries, and practical concerns about workability.

That last issue isn’t trivial. Last November, Denmark had to drop a “fat tax” imposed in 2011 on foods with a high fat content. Too many Danes were shopping for such foods in nearby Sweden or substituting other fatty foods.

The Obama administration keeps looking for ways to influence personal behavior without resorting to old-style, onerous prohibitions. President Obama, for example, has highlighted a software company, Opower, that provides homeowners with monthly electric bills that compare their usage with their neighbors’ usage. By appealing to people’s desire to keep a good reputation for an environmental cause, the technique saves the equivalent of 150,000 homes using electricity.

One of Mr. Obama’s most successful programs is called Race to the Top. It provides grants to state educators who come up with good reform ideas for public schools. It is the opposite of the punishment approach of the George W. Bush administration used under the No Child Left Behind law.

The idea of tapping social incentives to influence willpower or of raising the costs for making unhealthy choices are now in vogue among researchers, especially behavioral economists and evolution experts. The techniques try to honor freedom of conscience but still prod people by playing to common human tendencies, such as the avoidance of shame or a propensity to imitate.

One technique relies on “reciprocal altruism.” It is now often used by businesses. If a hotel, for example, tells guests that it will donate $5 to an environmental cause if they reuse their bath towels, many guests comply. And the hotel saves money.

Often, attempts to rearrange the “choice architecture” for people to alter bad habits fail. But one technique seems to work more than most: creating a community identity, even if that community is “virtual,” such as over the Internet.

This isn’t old-style peer pressure as much as a reliance on an innate willingness of people to sacrifice for those with whom they have an affinity. This occurs in families, among neighbors, within churches, or even on Facebook or Twitter. If such bonds of common interests can be forged, it is easier to discourage harmful behavior, either toward one’s self or toward others.

That seems obvious. But when political leaders try to shape behavior, as Mayor Bloomberg did, they often forget that such actions first require investing in wide and deep social connections, or community (e.g., don’t bypass the city council). And often a representative government, especially in a city of millions or in large countries, doesn’t have enough social glue to inspire people to sacrifice.

Local governments are often much better at nudging personal behavior. People know each other better and listen to each other with some affection.

Social engineering works best when there is real social engagement, the type based on trust and common goals. Those traits are the tools to invest in before tackling problem behaviors like gambling, binge drinking, and obesity.

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