Self-Conscious Citizens: A nudge might make housing markets more humane

Governments go to great lengths to help people understand the deleterious decisions that crop up in daily life. Calorie labels, tobacco and alcohol warnings, and educational campaigns all encourage specific behaviours.

Surveys of views on specific campaigns might be able to broadly teach us about public opinion for ‘pause and think’ policies. A spate of working papers by Cass Sunstein, eminent legal mind on the nudge, looks into public perceptions of behavioural policy. The results are robust: most accept them. In the United States, 87 per cent of respondents—regardless of political party, surprisingly—supported calorie labels. In Europe, similar numbers occur across countries, with France, the United Kingdom, Germany, and Italy hovering over 85 per cent support. Some of the more skeptical countries include Denmark and Hungary, at 63 and 74 per cent respectively.

Coming from behavioural economics, Sunstein distilled the results into two categories: system 1 nudges as those that play on intuition and system 2 nudges as those that induce deliberation. System 2 nudges tend to be more popular, various surveys from Canada, the United States, and elsewhere suggest. Presumably (and understandably), pernicious forces that operate outside our consciousness cause concern. This is perhaps the most important part of these papers: people would rather become conscious decision-makers than unconscious marionettes.

Turning toward a seeming non sequitur, a growing body of research explores the risks of a different decision—where we live. Like “sin” substances, housing can be hazardous to health, and, maybe more compelling, not just for the people making the purchase: childhood and adolescent development is influenced by built and natural environments.

Anything from commutes to rest and relaxation will be directly connected to housing situation. Commuting can contribute substantially to stress: in one study cortisol levels elevated as passengers travelled to work by train. In another study with drivers, longer commutes correlated with lower levels of subjective well-being—with no significant difference between drivers and rail riders. This even holds for partners when only one commutes.¹ Saving on the house might not be worth a few hundred stressful mornings a year, but our bias toward the present pays no heed to far off life satisfaction—or lack of.

Moving nearer to nature, according to a recent review in the journal Nature, say a tree-lined street or a park-filled municipality, produces lasting impact: those that did so saw gains to well-being, as measured by Britain’s General Health Questionnaire, three years later, going against the common claim that we habituate quite quickly. Yet as a white paper on play space by a New York think tank points out, hassle can curb our time outside—and proximity plays an important role in hassle. This may be why the above review indicated that a paltry 40 per cent of people in Britain will spend time near nature in an average week. Further, poor mental health is contributing to years of lost work.² If settlement patterns are causing sickness, there are economic costs as well.

Another study by Robin Dunbar³ found benefits to becoming a local at a bar. Drawing on his pathbreaking work with social circles, Dunbar explores the potential for pubs to improve our tertiary relationships—familiar faces, rather than friends and family—and even create closer ones. Data indicate that having a “local” leads to closer community ties and higher reported life satisfaction. This is also a prominent part of a larger health function: survival rates for various maladies, including cancer, correlate with social network. Connectedness becomes contentedness, according to Dunbar’s conclusions, and as with parks hassle matters. Asked what constitutes a ‘local’, proximity (‘it is close to where I live’) mattered for 68 per cent. Responses also considered a pub’s locality its centrality, focality, and ‘convenience for meeting people’—geographic considerations indeed.  

Childhood obesity is already a problem—as the surveys show—most would like to curb, neighbourhood density and the presence or absence of sidewalks can factor in. It is not a clean distinction, though: one study of students in Taiwan indicated that density drew out more walkers and bikers—better on balance, but trip time dropped with amenities closer.

How would nudges for happier and healthier housing look? Here food labelling offers some ideas. Attempts to pull people toward healthier choices are largely considered acceptable. Indeed, 73 per cent of respondents were amenable to warnings for high amounts of salt. Reviewing the surveys, Sunstein found that one form of nudge drew broad support—the “Traffic Light”. In short, this system codes a food by colour—red, orange, and green, of course—dependent upon its nutritional value. As data become bigger and better, there is reason to believe that housing can receive similar treatment: red lights for behavioural risks, green for favourable conditions, and yellow for the middle ground.  

In cities building up at breakneck speeds, and with ever more money on the line in each purchase, housing choices could have lasting consequences. There is one catch, though. Sunstein sees a disjunction between thought and deed: some will adjust their beliefs but not their behaviour when presented with a system 2 nudge. Most might believe that, baseline risks be damned, they can be better—a Lake Wobegon Effect. Regardless, if we can improve our lives by tackling these mental maladies, we should at least try.


1 Regardless of the gated articles, a summary can be found here.
2 Depression leads all disabilities in terms of ‘years lost’ from work, according to another Nature special issue. Anxiety disorder, measured separately, also placed in the top ten.
3 Caveat emptor: the report was done in partnership with the Campaign for Real Ale—a less than impartial party, to be sure.