Joar Røkke Fystro, PhD student, Department of Health
Management and Health Economics, University of Oslo. email@example.com.
Simon Thomsen, PhD student, Sport and Social
Issues, Department of Health Science and Technology, Aalborg University.
Denne fagartikkelen er fagfellevurdert etter Fysioterapeutens retningslinjer, og ble akseptert 9.august 2023. Ingen interessekonflikter oppgitt.
Nudges and incentives can
be—and are—used in physiotherapy treatment to alter and steer patients’
behaviour. In this paper, we first investigate the conceptual
difference between nudges and incentives. Thereafter, we conduct an ethical
analysis of these two techniques for influencing behaviour, pointing to
different aspects that may have ethical importance for physiotherapy practise.
We conclude that while employing nudges and incentives in physiotherapy
treatment raises distinct ethical issues in light of their conceptual
differences, there is a common moral imperative for physiotherapists to provide
and discuss the reasons for employing nudges and incentives with the public
and/or the patients.
bioethics, incentives, medical ethics, nudging, physiotherapy.
Hvem sin motivasjon? En konseptuell og etisk analyse av dulter og insentiver i fysioterapibehandling
Dulter og insentiver kan brukes – og blir brukt – for å endre og styre atferden til pasienter i fysioterapibehandling. I denne artikkelen undersøker vi først den konseptuelle forskjellen mellom dulter og insentiver. Deretter gjennomfører vi en etisk analyse av disse to teknikkene for å påvirke atferd, hvor vi peker på forskjellige aspekter som kan ha etisk betydning for fysioterapipraksis. Vi konkluderer med at selv om bruken av dulter og insentiver i fysioterapibehandling reiser ulike etiske problemstillinger på grunn av konseptuelle forskjeller mellom dem, eksisterer det et felles moralsk imperativ for fysioterapeuter til å meddele og diskutere grunnene til å bruke dulter og insentiver med offentligheten og/eller pasientene.
Nøkkelord: bioetikk, dulting, insentiver, fysioterapi, medisinsk etikk.
and incentives appear to be prevalent in current physiotherapy practices. In
this study, we hope to help practitioners in considering why and how they apply
nudges or incentives in treatment situations, and in determining when they might
(not) be appropriate. The motivation behind this paper is not to have
individual physiotherapists radically change their practices but rather to
spark debate about the appropriateness of nudges and incentives in certain
most part, the very effect of physiotherapy treatment depends on patients’
adherence to the treatment plans. To promote such adherence, different
techniques for affecting the behaviour of patients are available. Two of these
techniques are so-called nudges and incentives. For example, imagine a patient struggling
to exercise regularly. If the physiotherapist deliberately frames an exercise
intervention as the default intervention and emphasises that most people with
the same condition adhere to a similar programme, this counts as nudging. If a
physiotherapist instead gives her patient a discount on the service price for
participating in a series of group exercises, this counts as an incentive.
and incentives appear to be present in many physiotherapy practices,
underscoring the need for conceptual and ethical reflections concerning the use
of these techniques. Thus, in this paper, we start by exploring the conceptual
difference between nudges and incentives. Subsequently, we conduct an ethical
analysis with the aim of pointing to different aspects that may be relevant for
physiotherapists who consider employing nudges or incentives in treatment
situations. By so doing, we hope this paper serves to stimulate ethical
reflections and provide some practical guidance for clinicians in their
encounters with patients.
(as people) lack complete knowledge about all the conceivable options in each
choice situation as well as the consequences associated with these options, and
because we are, in many situations, unable to consider information consistently
to make choices that fit our preferences, we cannot be deemed perfectly
rational decision-makers (1). On the
contrary, we are prone to be influenced by apparently irrelevant factors in the
choice situation, such as how an option is framed and which option is presented
as the default (2). For instance, whether
the expected effect of an exercise intervention is framed in terms of the
likelihood of clinical improvement or the likelihood of no clinical improvement
might influence decisions as the former framing generally results in a more
positive view of the intervention (2, p. 367).
As another example, the order of a choice set can influence our decisions as we
are more prone to choosing the options presented first and last (3, p. 18). Additionally, the power of social
norms is invoked when we appeal to what ‘most people do’, which probably is one
of the most effective ways to get people to do what we want them to do (4).
When we make
use of such knowledge about ‘shallow cognitive processes’ in order to influence
people’s behaviour in a predictable way, we are nudging other people (3, 5, 6). The cognitive processes are shallow
in the sense that they work automatically and nonvoluntarily by bypassing the
conscious and reasoning self (2, 7).
Because these shallow cognitive processes have predictable tendencies, they are
sometimes referred to as cognitive biases. In one sense, almost every
aspect of the environment in which a choice is made may influence us. The
originators of the concept of nudging, Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein,
call this the ‘choice architecture’ (8, p. 3).
According to their line of thought, it is impossible not to nudge people, be it
intentionally or not, and the best we can hope for is therefore to nudge well (8, p. 255). However, in an ethical sense, it
seems meaningful to distinguish between intentional and inadvertent nudges, and
to save the term ‘nudge’ for the intentional and deliberate use of insights
into cognitive biases for achieving desired outcomes through influencing
people’s behaviour in predictable ways (5, 9,
nudges are usually viewed as ‘soft’ interventions, because they should, per
definition, operate ‘[…] without forbidding any options or significantly
changing [patients’] economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the
intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid’ (8,
p. 6). According to Thaler and Sunstein, this means that, if a person
has strong preferences for an option or a certain behaviour, they are still
entirely free to choose against following the decision that the nudge is
designed to promote. However, because of phenomena such as inertia, procrastination,
indifference and social conformity, many people are influenced in predictable
ways by how options are framed (11, pp. 20–1).
Since a plethora of different cognitive biases have been described in
psychology and behavioural economics (12),
various conceptual types of nudges exist. Consequently, there are various
ethical considerations associated with the different types of nudges. However,
in what follows, our focus is on raising some general ethical issues associated
with leveraging insights into cognitive biases to influence other people’s
behaviour in predictable ways.
to nudges, incentives appeal to the conscious and reasoning processes of the
human mind. Most basically, an incentive is a proposed transaction, where a
price has been put on a particular behaviour (13,
14). An incentive entails that a person is offered an extrinsic benefit
for behaving in a particular way, and that the person is free to take the offer
or leave it (15). The extrinsic benefit
may be both monetary and nonmonetary. For example, a physiotherapist offering
discounts on service prices if patients attend a series of group exercises, or
a physiotherapist offering t-shirts to patients who adhere to an exercise
programme both count as incentives. Accordingly, an incentive functions in the
sense that it gives extrinsic reasons to perform a particular action or
behave in a particular way, meaning reasons unrelated to the values ascribed to
the particular behaviour itself (16, p. 113; 17,
nudges, incentives are generally considered noncoercive and ‘soft’
interventions, where the intended receiver can freely choose to accept the
incentive and comply with the requirements for receiving it, or instead refuse
the offer and not end up worse off than before the offer was made (16, pp. 77–8). However, proponents of nudging
might see incentives as more intrusive interventions, as they consist of
changing people’s economic conditions, which, by definition, nudges do not do
(note that ‘economic’ here may be interpreted narrowly as alluding to money, as
some do (9, p. 125), or more broadly as
including every form of utility calculation in human reasoning, concerning
money or not (18)). In contrast to nudges
that work through changing the choice architecture, incentives add more options
to the situation without altering the other options already available or the environment
surrounding them, which might be considered a desirable feature of employing
incentives (16, p. 42).
techniques such as nudges and incentives are employed in many physiotherapy
clinics, and since we firmly believe it is necessary to discuss the
appropriateness of employing such means of promoting certain behaviours, we now
turn to an ethical analysis of these concepts.
of the following analysis is to point at (some) ethical aspects that may have
importance for the use of nudges and incentives in physiotherapy practice. Such
aspects include the concepts of transparency, manipulation, coercion and
motivation. By highlighting these ethical aspects, we hope to help
practitioners in considering why and how they apply nudges or incentives in
treatment situations, and in determining when they might (not) be appropriate.
As a basic
principle, fellow humans should be treated as our equals, and thus as competent
grown-ups capable of making informed and appropriate decisions. Making such
decisions relies on having a proper understanding of the choice situation (19). Notably, nudges are a type of
nonargumentative influence that bypasses the realm of reasoning to instead
leverage cognitive biases, which is to say that many nudges are not transparent
for the patient (3, pp. 118–22). As such,
the patient might be deprived of the opportunity for partaking in processes of
making informed choices as they do not know that they are being influenced by
specific techniques designed to affect their behaviour in a certain direction.
Nudges in the shape of the framing of a choice, or in how the order of the
alternatives in a choice set are arranged, are examples of nontransparent
influence, whereas nudges in the shape of defaults may be understood as
recommendations and therefore influence the patient more transparently (11, pp. 93–4). If, for instance, a
physiotherapist organising an exercise class asks participants to give notice
if they do not show up rather than if they do show up, because she believes
changing the default makes more participants show up, this constitutes a kind of
nudging that is easier to see through.
to nudges that might be more or less transparent, incentives work by extending
offers of benefits to patients and are thus transparent by their very nature.
It is worth noting that while nudges are generally viewed as less problematic
than incentives, when it comes to transparency, the asymmetry favours
incentives over at least some types of nudges.
above deals with a side of transparency we might call transparency of the means
(the nudging itself), another aspect is the transparency of the reasons for
employing such means, i.e. the ends being promoted (3, p. 121). That it is clear to patients what is being done to
affect their behaviour, does not necessarily entail that it is clear to them
why it is being done. It is conceivable that a physiotherapist employs a nudge
or an incentive that is transparent for the patient, but that the reasons for
doing so are hidden.
It is our
understanding, that it is generally rather transparent which overall ends
physiotherapeutic practices are designed to promote. However, being transparent
when employing techniques such as nudges and incentives entails communicating
to the patients how the techniques are being used and to what end, thus
inviting them to partake in processes of making informed choices that align
with their values and preferences. If nudges or incentives are designed to
influence behaviour more broadly at the population level, we maintain that the
physiotherapist should, as a minimum, be willing and able to defend publicly
both the reasons for using such techniques and the perceived necessity of
employing them (8, pp. 247–8).
account, when a technique for influencing behaviour ‘[…] does not engage or
appeal to people’s capacity for reflective and deliberative choice’ (11, p. 88), it counts as manipulative
influence. Per definition, many nudges thus seem to be a manipulative
influence, as they draw on shallow cognitive processes that bypass the
reasoning and deliberative faculties of our minds. At the same time, this
definition of manipulation is so broad that many aspects of normal human
interaction, for example smiling and using a cheerful voice when talking to
someone out of a desire to cheer them up, would count as manipulation,
although, intuitively, it seems much more appropriate than explicitly offering
them an incentive to cheer up. Consequently, whether a physiotherapist should
employ nudges or incentives in treatment situations does not appear to hinge on
whether they are viewed as manipulation or not, strictly speaking (3, p. 126).
issue at hand seems to be whether the reasons for nudging or incentivising the
treatment in a particular direction are discussed adequately and whether the
manipulation is of the good kind. Now, what amounts to adequate discussion and
good manipulation ought to be our topic of discussion. Thaler and
Sunstein argue that being able to publicly defend the reasons for nudging is
one of the key elements to satisfy the imperative to nudge well (8, pp. 246–9). On the other hand, one might
question whether it is enough that nudges (or incentives) are defendable in
public as contributing to a general, public good. After all, some generalised
treatment goals might not align with the values and preferences of individual
patients who are subjected to the techniques. Thus, it might be discussed
whether the use of a particular nudge or incentive should also be articulated
to—or negotiated with—the patient.
articulation or negotiation might be difficult, particularly when it comes to
nudging, as some nudges might be ineffective when revealed. Others might,
however, be fully open and still be effective in triggering cognitive biases in
the patient (11, p. 104), and it is fair
to wonder whether they should be made visible to patients if that is the case.
Whereas incentives as a behaviour changing technique are transparent for the
patient, they might still manipulate illegitimately if the reasons for using
them are held back or misleadingly presented to the patient.
discussion of nudges and incentives seems principally tied to a discussion of
the general role of healthcare professionals. Are they supposed to offer
treatment advice to patients who can apply such in accordance with their own
better judgement, or are they supposed to affect patients in a certain
direction even if it means that patient’s capacities for reasoning and
deliberation are bypassed?
to an influential bioethical analysis, offers cannot coerce because coercion
requires that there is a threat of making another person worse off or violating
their rights while leaving the person with no reasonable alternatives to
succumbing to the threat (20).
Conversely, if someone rejects an offer, the person will not be worse off than
she was before the offer was made; the offer only expands the viable options in
the situation (16, pp. 77–8). It follows
that an incentive—for instance in the shape of a monetary benefit—cannot be
coercive. Nudges seem similarly noncoercive, vindicated by their preservation
of liberty. The person targeted by the nudge is deemed free to act in ways that
are not in accordance with what the nudge promotes as none of the options within
the choice architecture are altered or forbidden (8). Consequently, the issue of coercion does not seem, on the
surface, to be ethically problematic for a physiotherapist considering
employing nudges or incentives in treatment.
there are two complicating factors that physiotherapists should be aware of.
First, although nudges and incentives cannot be coercive by the definition of
coercion given above, they can nonetheless influence a person unduly. Undue
influence occurs when a behaviour changing technique influences someone to do
something against their better judgement or principles (21). The physiotherapist should take measures to avoid influencing
patients unduly, which requires knowledge and respect for the patient’s own
goals and preferences.
we broaden the concept of incentives to include negative incentives—also
called disincentives—that impose a potential cost on a particular behaviour
rather than a potential benefit (a positive incentive), then a person
can be left worse off than she was before facing the incentive. Accordingly,
negative incentives may be seen as a threat of being worse off if the person
acts contrary to the behaviour that the incentive is designed to motivate. As a
result, negative incentives can be viewed as coercive, at least if there is no
reasonable way to avoid being faced with the incentive in the first place (20). On the other hand, though a negative
incentive does force a person to bear the cost of behaving in a particular way,
another question is whether that constitutes coercion in a strict sense. If an
incentive does not impose exorbitant costs on the targeted person, she may
still accept the costs and behave as she wants, and thus, acceptable
alternatives to behaving as encouraged by the incentive might remain available (22). Of course, what amounts to exorbitant
costs varies between situations and, importantly, between people. Nonetheless,
the discussion can be taken as an indication that negative incentives employed
in clinical practice are subject to an additional justificatory burden.
feature of incentives is that they are techniques aimed at motivating
the patient to act differently than she would have done in its absence (15). Nudges, on the other hand, do not target
people’s motivation as such, but influence instead through adjusting the choice
architecture inherent in the situation, without necessarily influencing the
conscious motivation of the patient.
techniques are employed to affect behaviour subconsciously or to change the
conscious motivations of patients, their use seems to invite certain questions,
namely: Whose motivation do they serve? Are nudges and incentives mere
instruments designed to affect people’s behaviour in accordance with
state-sanctioned health imperatives, or are they ways of helping patients act
within their own best interest? How is a physiotherapist’s clinical knowledge
of treatment appropriately balanced with other aspects of the lives of
patients? Do nudges and incentives promote health at the expense of such
balance? If so, is it worth it?
these questions once and for all seems impossible as they relate to deeply
rooted philosophical and sociological debates regarding the relationship
between patient and professional, individual and society.
the present paper has not investigated or elaborated on any legal constraints
for using nudges or incentives in physiotherapy treatment. Nudges, as defined
in this paper, are surely a part of many current physiotherapy practices and
must of course be applied in accordance with the obligation to ensure that
patients receive professionally sound healthcare. Regarding incentives, there
may be differences in the scope of action for privately practising
physiotherapists without an agreement with a municipality and physiotherapists
working directly or indirectly in the public health services. However, negative
incentives in the shape of nonattendance fees that patients must pay if they do
not attend their outpatient appointments—including those with
physiotherapists—are for instance widely implemented in the public health
services in Norway (23).
motivation behind this paper is not to have individual physiotherapists
radically change their practices but rather to spark debate about the
appropriateness of nudges and incentives in certain situations, and thus to contribute
to the development of well-thought-out guidelines for their use that consider
other (ethical) aspects than the mere effectiveness of the techniques in
eliciting desired behavioural outcomes.
are distinct ethical issues related to the use of nudges and incentives, among
them the nontransparent character of many nudges and the potential coercive
nature of negative incentives, there is a common moral imperative for
physiotherapists to provide and discuss with the public and/or the patients the
reasons for employing such techniques. Since both nudges and (at least
negative) incentives appear to be prevalent in current physiotherapy practices,
and are ripe with potential ethical issues, the need for conceptual and ethical
reflections concerning their use is obvious.
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