Barack Obama, we learned recently, plans to start his own "nudge unit". This news triggered a familiar back-and-forth about whether it's OK for politicians to prod us in the direction of healthier living. But increasingly it's a debate that nudges me into irritation, because it's based on a misunderstanding. Anti-nudgers bemoan what they see as the nanny state; they think government should stay neutral on things such as diet and exercise. The problem is that staying neutral is trickier than it sounds. All else being equal, a government that decides not to influence fizzy-drink consumption (or whatever) isn't staying neutral, leaving consumers free of pressure. It's making an active choice to let the soft drink industry's persuasive efforts – ads, sponsorship – go unopposed. You might feel the anti-nudgers are in the right here: after all, governments get to enforce their wishes using the law and police, so we should be hyper-wary when they stick their noses in. What you're not entitled to claim, though, is that being anti-nudge is "staying neutral". You have to pick a side. You don't have the option of rising above the fray.
This same mistake – imagining you can take refuge in neutrality, when you can't – crops up throughout politics and our personal lives. Another high-profile example is same-sex marriage. Supporters often say government should stay neutral on who marries whom. But as the political philosopher Michael Sandel points out, that's an argument for eliminating marriage as a legal concept altogether. When you support same-sex marriage – as you should! – you're saying the state should actively endorse gay and straight unions: nothing neutral about it. A similar error is to try to stay neutral on whether to leave a relationship (or city, or job). What you're choosing, at least for now, is to remain in it. Life doesn't offer the possibility of being neither single nor not single.
Or, to quote one of the less obnoxious self-help cliches: not deciding is also a decision. That's a subtle point, distorted by go-getting motivational types, who think it means you should never hold back. Actually, sometimes you should: "Many, if not most, of life's crises do not require immediate action," writes one cognitive therapist, Sandy Andrews. "They may, at some point, require a decision. But right now? Not usually. [So] decide not to decide... Concentrate on self-soothing. Take care of yourself until you are in a position where you can carefully assess the available information." But this entails making a conscious choice: opting for delay because the pros of doing so outweigh the cons. The pitfalls come when you believe you don't have to make any choice at all – and thereby make one anyway.
Even consciously deciding not to decide is something to do sparingly; keeping your options open isn't as rewarding as it seems. Reversible decisions lead to less happiness than irreversible ones. In one study, subjects allowed to choose an art poster to keep reported less satisfaction with it when given the option of swapping it later for another. Fail to close doors and you'll keep fretting over your choice. It's the same old story: by not committing, you're committing… to more self-doubt and worry. Trying to stay neutral is fraught with trouble. See also: the history of Switzerland.
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