The Role of Autonomy and Reactance for Nudging - Experimentally Comparing Defaults to Recommendations and Mandates


Frequently, scholars and decision-makers criticize behavioral public policies for infringing on behavioral autonomy. This paper provides evidence from an online framed field experiment, in which participants encountered a recommendation, a default value, or a mandatory minimum contribution accompanied by varying information on the regulator, before contributing to climate protection and answering an autonomy-related questionnaire. Our findings show that decision-makers perceive defaults as more freedom threatening but not more annoying than recommendations. They perceive mandatory minimum contributions as more threatening to freedom and annoying than defaults. Intrinsic motivation moderates these differences. Framing the regulator as an expert reduces perceived threat to freedom and felt anger, while political source framing has no effect. We also provide suggestive, exploratory, correlational evidence on potential reasons that defaults reduce contributions more than other interventions for highly motivated people. A mediated moderation analysis shows that this is partly because subjects rate the default as more threatening and because this makes them angry. However, the latter finding has important caveats and demands for future research. Findings improve our understanding of how the effectiveness of behavioral interventions depends on decision-makers’ perceptions and how this can be leveraged by policymakers.