Public relations people are widely considered "nudges," i.e., those who encourage others to do something. (This is opposed to "noodges" which Merriam Webster defines as "pests" but that's for a different posting.)
Nudges, as it happens, are practitioners of the highest form of behavioral science.
Daniel Khaneman won the Nobel Prize in economics for driving a stake through the heart of homo economicus, the imaginary human being who only made rational decisions. Although a psychologist by training he was midwife to the new field of behavioral economics.
Economists may have been late to the party, but public relations practitioners have long understood human thinking and behavior are shaped by cognitive illusions, unconscious urges, and hidden biases.
Edward Bernays, for example, consulted psychoanalysts in preparing public relations campaigns for clients ranging from American Tobacco to United Fruit. (In the first instance, he was advised that cigarettes are a symbol of male power, i.e., the penis, and proceeded to attach smoking to the suffragette movement.)
Whether Bernays's success was due to psychoanalytic insight or a good nose for publicity is arguable, but there's little question understanding how the mind works can help increase an message's persuasiveness. For example, create the illusion of scarcity ("Only four seats left at this price.") and people feel pressure to click the "buy" button. We know more about human decision making today than ever before.
Richar Thaler and Cass Sunstein wrote a book called Nudge to show how the government and other institutions can capitalize on these behavioral insights to "improve decisions about health, wealth, and happiness." For example, "A school cafeteria might try to nudge kids toward good diets by putting the healthiest foods at front."
But recognizing that these techniques can be used for bad as well as good -- and perhaps outraged by his personal experience being nudged by airlines and publishers -- Thaler recently set forth three rules of ethical nudging:
■ All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.
■ It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.
■ There should be good reason to believe that the behavior being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being nudged.
That last point in particular is a good reminder of our ethical responsibility as public relations practitioners.