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September 15, 2020
Early View Original Scholarship Population health Commercial determinants of health
May CI Van Schalkwyk
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Context: “Nudges” and other behavioral economic approaches exploit common cognitive biases (systematic errors in thought processes) in order to influence behavior and decision‐making. Nudges that encourage the consumption of harmful products (for example, by exploiting gamblers’ cognitive biases) have been termed “dark nudges.” The term “sludge” has also been used to describe strategies that utilize cognitive biases to make behavior change harder. This study aimed to identify whether dark nudges and sludge are used by alcohol industry (AI)–funded corporate social responsibility (CSR) organizations, and, if so, to determine how they align with existing nudge conceptual frameworks. This information would aid their identification and mitigation by policymakers, researchers, and civil society.
Methods: We systematically searched websites and materials of AI CSR organizations (e.g., IARD, Drinkaware, Drinkwise, Éduc’alcool); examples were coded by independent raters and categorized for further analysis.
Findings: Dark nudges appear to be used in AI communications about “responsible drinking.” The approaches include social norming (telling consumers that “most people” are drinking) and priming drinkers by offering verbal and pictorial cues to drink, while simultaneously appearing to warn about alcohol harms. Sludge, such as the use of particular fonts, colors, and design layouts, appears to use cognitive biases to make health‐related information about the harms of alcohol difficult to access, and enhances exposure to misinformation. Nudge‐type mechanisms also underlie AI mixed messages, in particular alternative causation arguments, which propose nonalcohol causes of alcohol harms.
Conclusions: Alcohol industry CSR bodies use dark nudges and sludge, which utilize consumers’ cognitive biases to promote mixed messages about alcohol harms and to undermine scientific evidence. Policymakers, practitioners, and the public need to be aware of how such techniques are used to nudge consumers toward industry misinformation. The revised typology presented in this article may help with the identification and further analysis of dark nudges and sludge.
Keywords: behavioral economics, nudge, sludge, commercial determinants of health, public health, alcohol.
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