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Did you miss the gorilla? Choice architecture is not the solution to inequality

Tania Burchardt, Associate Professor, Department of Social Policy, London School of Economics & Political Science

Have you done the Invisible Gorilla experiment on selective attention? You know that one where you are asked to watch a short video and count the number of times the players wearing white shirts pass the basketball? They throw it fast so you have to concentrate. At the end, much to your surprise, the question on the screen is not ‘How many times?’ but ‘Did you see the gorilla?’ In the original experiment, fully half of those who watched the video missed the person dressed as a gorilla, who wanders into shot, faces the camera, thumps his chest, and ambles off again, spending a total of 9 seconds on screen. Why? Because their attention was elsewhere. 

That was my reaction on reading Kendra Tully’s article in the October 2022 issue of Behavioural Public Policy. She’s done a great job of counting the ball-throws – and she makes some perceptive and persuasive observations about how the ball could be thrown better – but isn’t she trying to distract us from focusing on the gorilla? To put it more directly: Her argument that inequality could be reduced by improving the choice architecture of certain public policies to avoid presenting people on low incomes with overwhelming cognitive demands is all well and good, but it diverts us from the more obvious point that inequality could be reduced by making the distribution of the fruits of labour and trade fairer. 

Tully’s focus on inequality is a welcome corrective to the tendency in behavioural science to proceed as if agents were identical except for their preferences. Using the concept of relational autonomy, which I have also used in previous work on autonomy and inequality (Burchardt et al 2015), Tully “emphasizes the role of one’s environment as critical to the expression of autonomy” (p586) and identifies that, “there appear to be at least two separate conditions necessary for the richest experience of autonomy: the internal feeling and knowledge of one’s autonomy and the ability to outwardly express one’s autonomy” (p588) through making choices that further the achievement of one’s goals.  Tully argues that lacking, “Resources such as time, education, money and social connections” (p581), reduces internal capacities, for example because people in poverty “experience less freedom to fail, causing anxiety and distress,” (p590), and “live with a deep sense of shame because they attribute their failures to personal faults” (p591), all of which means they “pay a high bandwidth tax, making them more likely to commit the kind of decision-making errors that will perpetuate poverty.” (p591). Hence, Tully argues, simplifying the choice architecture of important interactions that people in poverty have with public policies – she gives the examples of filing tax returns and selecting healthcare plans – will reduce cognitive overload, leading to better decisions and narrowing inequalities. 

But the problem of economic inequality will not be solved by making it easier for low-earners to claim their tax credits. More promising would be to overhaul the tax code so that wealthy individuals and corporations pay their fair share and or even simply to invest in effective enforcement of the existing tax code, to recoup the $1 trillion revenue estimated to be lost to evasion and avoidance in the US in a single year.  

To make sense of Tully’s argument, we must assume that her interlocutor is a libertarian, committed to minimal government intervention, and that the best she can hope to achieve is to persuade them that tweaking the choice architecture of certain public policies does not offend against their laissez-faire principles, and might reduce inequalities. But since libertarians are not perturbed by significant economic inequalities as an outcome, it is unclear what would motivate them to engage with Tully’s agenda in the first place. And given that the impact of the kind of nudges that Tully discusses on overall inequality would be very marginal indeed, the risk of putting forward this argument is that it becomes a new ‘trickle down’ mantra: no need to consider regulation of the economy or redistribution, because economic growth will solve poverty; no need to consider regulation of the economy or redistribution, because changing the default option on filing tax returns or healthcare plans will redress inequality. 

The risk of putting forward this argument is that it becomes a new ‘trickle down’ mantra

Trickle down didn’t solve poverty and changing the choice architecture won’t tackle inequality. Instead – as Tully’s own account of relational autonomy emphasises – we need to reshape the conditions in which people live and work, to ensure that the options between which they are choosing are not, as Sen (1990) puts it, Bad, Awful or Terrible, but are instead a range of viable and valuable possibilities for living a good life.

It sounds obvious, but then, it’s easy to miss the gorilla when your attention is directed towards the ball-throwers.

The article by Kendra Tully was published in the October 2022 issue of Behavioural Public Policy. Access to all back issues of the journal is available to members of the International Behavioural Public Policy Association (Subscription £20/yr)

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