Behavioral economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein are known to advocate a form of “paternalist libertarianism”. The basic idea is to nudge people toward more rational behavior through non-coercive means. Indeed, their book on the subject is titled “to push“
While there is much to be said for this idea, especially when compared to more coercive government alternatives, this approach is not without risks. Joshua Madsen and Jonathan Hall studied the effects of electronic highway signs designed to scare motorists into driving more carefully. Economist reports that their study found some unintended consequences:
The study focused on Texas, where the year’s rising number of deaths from road accidents was displayed on highway signs every four weeks. The authors found that, between 2010 and 2017, more accidents occurred in weeks with the number of deaths shown. Most additional crashes occurred kilometers after a mark, but there was still a high risk for several kilometers (see top chart). . . .
The authors suggest that threatening messages may distract drivers.
Fortunately, the story has a happy ending:
The study highlights how seemingly innocuous “nudges,” used by governments to try to change behavior, can backfire.
Fortunately the US government has provided a push of its own. Last year the Federal Highway Administration released a memo clarifying that using electronic highway signs to display death tolls is inappropriate.