‘Cognitive Infiltration’: the Dark Side of the Nudge

In their influential book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein make the case that the government can and should leverage what it understands about behavioral psychology to “nudge” citizens toward healthier activities and outcomes.  One objection the authors acknowledge is that hacking people’s behavior, while not coercive in the classic sense, is still manipulative.  The authors anticipate this critique and respond by invoking the publicity principle from the work of John Rawls: officials should not nudge people in ways that would raise serious concerns were their methods made public.  “The government should respect the people whom it governs,” write Thaler and Sunstein, “and if adopts policies it could not defend in public, if fails to manifest that respect.”

The publicity principle is not an adequate response to the manipulation critique for a few reasons.  First, the response conflates what is publicly acceptable with what is democratically legitimate.  And second, because it calls for internal deliberation (“could not defend”) rather than actual transparency, the response assumes officials and the public will be on the same page about what methods are objectionable.  This turns out to be a questionable assumption.

I discuss these and other objections to nudging in my recent essay Code, Nudge, or Notice?  What I want to focus on here is the revelation this week that the British government is using psychology to influence and disrupt “hacktivist” and other online communities.  What was particularly astonishing (to me) was that Sunstein advocated for a version of this practice the very year Nudge hit the market.  Specifically, according to reporting by the indomitable Glenn Greenwald, Sunstein co-authored a 2008 memo suggesting the use of “cognitive infiltration” against “anti-government groups.”

I point this out not to demonstrate somehow that Sunstein is a hypocrite.  In addition to being rude and ad hominem, such an allegation finds little support.  I personally have tremendous respect for Sunstein as an intellectual and public servant.  Rather, I offer the example of cognitive infiltration—which, let us be clear, represents the sheep of libertarian paternalism in wolf’s clothing—as a vivid illustration of how a publicity principle falls short.  Some officials in the United States and Great Britain thought it would be just fine to manipulate citizens psychologically in an effort to disrupt inconvenient (if often misguided) ideologies.  Other individuals think the practice is, well, disrespectful.

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2 Responses

  1. Will Howe says:

    For some reason my first comment didn’t show up, so I’ll try again (more briefly).

    1. Sunstein didn’t author some secret “memo” that was sniffed out by Greenwald. He wrote an academic paper with Adrian Vermeule about “Conspiracy Theories” that anyone can read here: http://papers.ssrn.com/sol3/papers.cfm?abstract_id=1084585

    2. Writing from an academic POV, the authors address conspiracy theories of a particular type: those that are demonstrably false and that incubate in closed echo chambers. Their recommendation that, within certain limits, the government might consider injecting some “truth” into these echo chambers is far less controversial than this article makes it appear. When you use the quotes “cognitive infiltration” of “anti-government groups” you are (perhaps unwittingly) citing Greenwald’s fears, not Sunstein’s position.

    3. As to the substance of your point, it’s not clear to me that the publicity principle “assumes officials and the public will be on the same page.” Is it not possible that an official could recognize the public might object to something, even if he personally doesn’t? Why must they be “on the same page”? There is an assumption there, but it’s one that’s baked into our representative democracy: that politicians can roughly assess public preferences.

  2. Ryan Calo says:


    This is a valid correction. Thank you. My claim, of course, was that “according to reporting” but I appreciate the context you have rightfully furnished.

    As to your substantive point: the publicity principle assumes that officials will be in a position to anticipate public reaction. I’m saying they often will not be. I don’t see this as a particularly controversial, and indeed it echoes criticism of libertarian paternalism by Rizzo, Whitman, Schlag, Glaeser and others to the effect that officials, too, have cognitive biases.