Canada sends mail to get Canadians to stop sending mail

Canada's behavioral economics plan runs into some problems.
© kudla/Shutterstock

Dear Canada,

It started innocently enough: you wanted more people to file their taxes online. Online taxes are better for the environment and, I'm assuming, much easier and less expensive than the paper versions. So you came up with the obvious solution: send letters telling people to stop sending letters.

Clearly, this was a foolproof plan. So your researchers were shocked when it failed. When they tested this method by sending 25,000 Canadians somewhat patronizing letters about how paper hurts trees, they found that people who filed on paper kept on filing on paper.

This experiment cost you $36,600 somehow.

I know why you did it. Behavioral economics is becoming quite the rage nowadays. This school of thought argues that you can "nudge" people into changing their behavior. If you want people to lose weight, put the chocolate at the back of the grocery store, not the front. If you want people to stop using so many plastic bags, charge a plastic bag fee.

But frankly, I'm not sure why you thought condescending letters counted as nudges. Seriously, somebody did not do their research.

You may sense that I'm annoyed with you, Canada. It's not because I think you had the wrong idea. It's quite the opposite: you had a good idea. And then you ruined it in the execution.

So let me help you: A nudge is not a lecture. A nudge makes complying easier, not more annoying. In one study, researchers found that employees who were automatically enrolled in savings plans saved more (duh). So an online tax nudge would be making online taxes the default. Taxpayers could opt in to paper taxes if they wanted to.

You could also pander to people's sense of belonging. When the U.K.'s behavioral economics team tried to get people to pay their taxes, they sent letters saying something like, "9 out of 10 people in your district pay their tax on time," and it worked. So Canada, if you're going to send people letters, send letters pointing out that the majority of Canadians file their taxes online (I have no idea if this is true).

There you go, Canada. Two nudges, on me. I'm sure you'll try them out. After all, doesn't everyone like taking advice from patronizing letters?

Yours,
Ilana

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