Acceptability of nudges as public policy tools: a theoretical and empirical analysis


Work data:

Type of work: PhD Thesis


Policy & Regulation


behavioural sciences, nudging


This thesis is a theoretical and empirical analysis of the acceptability of nudges as policy tools. The first part of the thesis discusses the characterisation of nudges as a policy instrument, paying attention to conceptual, ethical and theoretical issues. The thesis looks at the original notion of nudges, their theoretical and empirical bases and the main criticisms of both dimensions. It goes on to outline the problems with Thaler and Sunstein’s notion of nudges and proposes an alternative understanding of nudges, advocating dropping the normative connotations of nudges, and focusing on their practical value as a policy tool. The second part includes three empirical studies on attitudes towards nudges: a nationally representative survey (n= 617, e=3.88) of the public acceptability of nudges in Spain, and two experimental studies that explore the acceptability of two types of nudges, automatic nudges that are less noticeable, work with no deliberation and awareness, and reflective nudges that are noticeable, work by engaging deliberation and produce a more reflective response. The empirical part addresses some of the concerns discussed in the theoretical debate and emphasises that the discussion on the acceptability of nudges as policy tools should include considerations about whether people like nudges, which nudges they prefer and the contexts in which they accept their implementation. The results outline three main themes. Firstly, the public acceptability of nudges is high, people favour the use of different nudges applied to both pro-self and pro-social domains and the indication is that people do not categorically oppose nudges. Secondly, the type of nudge is important. People recognise differences between nudges and tend to preferer reflective nudges to automatic nudges. At the same time, the findings in the three studies indicate that people do not categorically oppose the implementation of automatic nudges and support their use in several cases. Thirdly, the acceptability of automatic nudges depends on the context in which they are applied; people support their use when they agree with the aim and when they affect behaviour in low-stake domains. By contrast, their use is not supported when they affect decisions in high-stake domains, such as decisions that involve sensitive or moral issues or decisions that involve economic losses. Overall, the thesis explores arguments in favour of and against nudges and offers ideas and conclusions to give an idea of how nudges could be useful and acceptable tools for policymaking.


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Document complet:
De Quintana Medina, J. (2021). Acceptability of nudges as public policy tools: a theoretical and empirical analysis. Barcelona: UAB.