Commentary Magazine

An Ivy League Nudge-ucation

“Fake it till you make it.” So said Yale University President Peter Salovey to a group he gathered last October for the announcement of the university’s “2013–2016 Sustainability Strategic Plan.” The plan builds upon earlier progress toward making Yale less wasteful and more environmentally conscious by seeking to establish an immersive atmosphere of “sustainability” on campus. Sustainability, defined in the 1987 United Nations report “Our Sustainable Future” as development that “meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs,” takes on a social and political hue that advocates progressive social structures and disdains free markets. President Salovey offered the “fake it” advice in the hope that the more stubborn students might, after a while, not be able to tell the difference between feigning eco-zeal and fainting from it. Do as the Romans do—and soon you’ll be Roman. According to the Yale Daily News, “the new plan centers upon encouraging behavioral change in areas ranging from food consumption to paper use.” Exactly what “encouraging” entails hasn’t been spelled out yet. It will depend, Salovey said, on what social-psychology research indicates will best push students’ buttons.

Administrators are already going forward with an assortment of ideas. Yale’s dining director plans to “seduce our students with plant-based foods” rather than “mandate change.” Martha Highsmith, Salovey’s senior adviser, says she will look to prominent members of the student body to set examples and influence others to make lifestyle shifts. The project’s website explains that with a little top-down urging, sustainability might eventually become a simple given on campus:

The success of this plan relies on system modification and behavior change. As a university with a robust culture of sustainability, Yale is able to call upon its professionals to effect change in their workplaces and in their lives while simultaneously offering students the experience of living, studying, and playing in a setting that is imbued with sustainability values.

Yale has even established an Office of Sustainability. Amber Garrard, who bears the title of education and outreach program manager, says the whole undertaking “is about empowering the community to make mindful decisions, and integrating these principles into everyday behavior.” At graduation, then, when the training wheels come off, the new alums will pedal straight and steady toward solar-paneled houses and vegan-only restaurants. Thus they will have adopted a lifelong ideology out of force of habit.

The college-campus sustainability drive represents a significant shift in higher education, from educating students with rational and moral knowledge that prepares them to make prudent, conscious choices to covert training operations that elicit Pavlovian responses. Yale’s program is dangerous because it is aimed at teaching students to think uncritically. It seeks to change behavior by targeting the subconscious.

Behavior Modification is the backbone of the sustainability movement, whose logic goes like this: The Earth is heating up and drying out; humans are exacerbating the process by recklessly polluting the environment and consuming resources; therefore, we must collectively slow down or stop our eco-destruction. Emissions have to be quashed, waste must cease, recycling must increase, and resources must be cached. Such heavy-handed eco-enforcement was satirized successfully in a 2010 Super Bowl advertisement for Audi in which the “Green Police” handcuff a plastic-bag offender and arrest the owner of an incandescent light bulb. “What do you think of plastic bottles now?” an officer asks two teens as he empties their disposable water bottles. Eventually, the owner of an Audi A3 TDI—named the 2010 “green car of the year” according to Green Car Journal—smugly skips the long line at a highway “eco-check” point and gets the Green Police off his back.

There is truth in the ad’s exaggeration, for it points to the sort of regulatory tactics many environmentalists favor. The establishment of the Environmental Protection Agency in 1970 spawned a host of limits and bans, and required measurements on pollution, emissions, waste disposal, and pesticides. Some of these proved worthwhile, others overshot their bounds, but all compelled compliance. And at UN summits in Rio de Janeiro in 1992, Kyoto in 1997, Johannesburg in 2002, Copenhagen in 2009, and elsewhere, heads of state forged international agreements that demanded individual and corporate obedience and censured noncompliant behavior.

Sweeping regulations are one thing, but fighting climate change requires the micromanagement of the planet’s population. The admonition “think globally, act locally,” introduced by microbiologist Rene Dubos in 1972, has become a Green mantra. If Earth is to be saved, salvation will come one fluorescent lightbulb and reusable bottle at a time.

With characteristic zeal, the campus adherents of Environmental Puritanism are increasingly developing fundamentalist behaviors. Apart from a few  zealous trash-sifters, there are no Green Police on campus. Administrators actuate behavior modification through manipulation instead. Yale’s recent shift from administrative policy to so-called choice architecture is the latest expression of this approach. Rather than focusing their efforts on institutional changes that reduce operational emissions or mandate student compliance, schools are tailoring the student experience to mold young people into sustainability activists, or at least adherents. This means doing things like denouncing bottled water and shaming students into drinking from the tap. Another favorite scapegoat is the cafeteria tray, which requires washing and enables students who find their trays bigger than their stomachs to take and then toss uneaten food.

It should be understood that ditching plastic bottles (and trays) will not bring man-made global warming to a halt. If every student gave up bottled water and plastic trays, we’d still face the much larger “threats” of gas-guzzling vehicles and energy-eating home appliances. The role of bottles and trays in the greening of the country is infinitesimally small relative to the inconvenience of abiding by the new eco-morality. But this imbalance makes sense if one thinks of the outsized inconvenience itself as the primary goal of these exercises in deprivation.

The student awkwardly juggling plates, cups, and cutlery isn’t saving all that much dishwashing water, but he is acutely aware three times each day of his commitment to protect the planet’s resources. He is taking small measures with upfront tangible inconveniences that alert him to the need for other, larger measures he may take in the future. He is being habituated to a way of life. Today he’ll renounce the tray and refill a reusable bottle from the tap; tomorrow he’ll prefer the thrift store over the mall; and 20 years from now, he’ll power his manufacturing corporation with windmills.

This sort of long-term behavior modification is exactly what Yale and other schools have in mind. At a similar program at the University of Texas at Arlington, sustainability director Meghna Tare exults on the sustainable business blog Triple Pundit: “Students attending a university that places high value on sustainable operations are more likely to take this mind-set to their future places of employment where they can help shape the future of environmentally friendly companies.”

Attempting to instill moral principles through everyday practice is, of course, nothing new. It is a pillar of great religions. In Judaism, orthodoxy involves a great deal of orthopraxy: Revering the Torah and Talmud means, primarily, obeying them. Christian teaching places a greater emphasis on salvific faith than on works, but the faith itself initiates good works as it converts the soul’s desires and actions.

There are also philosophical traditions that emphasize the importance of regular practice. Aristotle advocated a kind of conduct formation in the Nicomachean Ethics: “Virtue of character results from habit,” he said. “A state of character arises from the repetition of similar activities.” The British mathematician and judge Lord Moulton (1844–1921) described habit as falling between the realms of law and individual free choice. No written or enforced rules apply, yet one does not fully feel free to act as he wishes; manners, civic duties, and ethics weigh on his conscience. And the lack of policing is key: “To my mind the real greatness of a nation, its true civilization, is measured by the extent of this land of Obedience to the Unenforceable,” Moulton remarked in a speech, “Law and Manners,” around the turn of the century. “The true test is the extent to which the individuals composing the nation can be trusted to obey self-imposed law.”

Yale and its sustainability counterparts see their project as one that encourages the inclusion of certain “unenforceables” in campus norms. The university attempted to legislate tray-less dining four years ago, but students revolted. At the time, the director of residential dining blamed social stigmas: “It won’t work until it’s cool not to use a tray.” For now, the decision to forgo trays remains in the realm of free choice. But manipulate the social atmosphere, and soon a new social norm appears, fed by peer pressure as students willingly impose on themselves the strictures they once bucked. Technically, undergraduates could undermine the system by carrying trays and stopping their ears during sustainability orientation lectures, but social norms effectively hedge them in.

The university’s subterfuge isn’t eating away at choice per se, then, but at conscious, rational choice. And the virtue that Aristotle saw as resulting from habit is nowhere to be found. This is because the tactics of the campus sustainability movement part ways with the classical idea of fostering virtue in two key ways.

First, the content of the behavior-shaping norms draws on partisan ideology (sustainability) instead of basic standards of human decency. The sustainability movement hinges on a dogma encompassing environmental, economic, and social concerns. In its literature these are often depicted in a Venn diagram, with sustainability as the thrice-overlapped center. Sustainability adherents, moreover, see capitalism and traditional social structures as the greatest threats to progress in these three realms. Thus the new norms being established are norms in support of a political ideology.

Second, the means of implementing these norms and instilling habits undermine any claim to virtue. The mark of good character used to be one’s trustworthiness, as Moulton put it, in choosing the right behavior of one’s own accord. Now, apparently, it’s sufficient to play the part. Yale’s thinking here is in keeping with recent social science that sees habits as nothing more than reflexive, subconscious reactions to social stimuli. Instead of recognizing fixed truths of ethics grounded in a thoughtful understanding of our world and our natures, so this view goes, we merely react to stimuli that are put in place by artificial and constraining social hierarchies. Habits, according to the modern French thinker Pierre Bourdieu, for example, reflect “what some would mistakenly call values.” Since the hierarchies are not sacred, nothing prevents our tampering with them and with the habits that they’ve engendered. Utility-motivated manipulation (the kind that Yale is advocating) becomes acceptable—at least to the manipulators. The sustainability movement’s engineering of the social environment to protect the natural one treats human choice as a programmable response.

Such social tinkering was advocated most robustly in the 2008 New York Times bestseller Nudge, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. The book details strategies to tweak our habituating structures to push us toward the best choices. Thaler and Sunstein’s work could stand as the Yale blueprint. The authors distinguish between what they call “Econs,” the fully rational, computing robots that economists assume humans to be, and “Humans,” the emotional creatures we really are. We Humans act on impulse, use rules of thumb, inertly favor the status quo, and neglect to study all our options, and so we often choose poorly. Educating Humans to be Econs isn’t feasible, but teaching them to mimic Econs is. If not all of us can decide in a rational manner, then the rational ones among us may as well nudge the others toward Econ-certified rational behavior.

Thaler and Sunstein advocate a “libertarian paternalism”: libertarian because of “the straightforward insistence that, in general, people should be free to do what they like” and paternalistic because “it is legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behavior in order to make their lives longer, healthier, and better.” These paternalistic “nudges” leave people free to choose among a preset buffet of options. The social planner arranges the circumstances of people’s choices—making plant-based foods a prominent component of Yale menus, say—in order to encourage the socially optimal choice. “To count as a mere nudge,” Thaler and Sunstein assure readers, “the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates.” Easy and cheap to avoid if you’re an Econ, that is. If, as Thaler and Sunstein claim, Humans gravitate toward the default on everything from magazine subscriptions to health-insurance policies, then evading nudges isn’t so simple.

The institutional nudging of human behavior cracks open the door—if not entirely unhinging it—to the possibility of authoritarian abuse. Even if the social architect nudges selectively, the nudged respondents may act virtuously, but they will not be virtuous. Virtue requires virtuous intentionality, not just one-off activities. Yale students who are faking it on President Salovey’s advice are stringing together mindless acts of mimicry.

A closing thought experiment. Imagine that Yale were nudging its students toward politically incorrect mores—say, encouraging female students to join the cheer squad and avoid sports, or shaming international students who eat their preferred ethnic food. There’d be an outcry. Critics would denounce the intolerance, the regressive social norms, and so on. But when a politically correct dogma is forced on unsuspecting students, no one calls foul. Which perhaps goes to show that the habit of rational inquiry on campus started to erode long before any student was nudged to give up his water bottle.

About the Author

Rachelle DeJong, a new contributor, is a research associate and assistant to the president at the National Association of Scholars.

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