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Risk, the Hassle Factor, and the Airport Security Backlash

Life can be a big hassle sometimes, and the new airport security measures are making it more so. Although the vast majority of people are going along with the new whole body scanning or pat down searches, a growing number are complaining that these measures have gone too far. The Obama team no doubt feels that they are stuck between a rock and a hard place, that there is a demand for absolute security on one side, and a rising chorus of complaints on the other. Maybe it does not make sense to want zero risk and also zero hassle. But that's who we are—we hate hassle.

Waiting in line at the DMV is a hassle. Traffic is a hassle. Paying bills is a hassle, particularly when you have more bills than money. Getting bombarded by ads and having our behavior pushed this way and that can be a hassle. Worrying about your job and your home can be a huge hassle. Being poked and probed to get on an airplane and eat peanuts in a tiny chair is a hassle.

Some things keep our hate of hassles in check. If we feel risk, or a big reward then we will put up with a lot. But as the sense of risk subsides, and the reward proves less than we hoped, the hassle factor rises again.

After 9/11 there was an overall feeling that we would pursue security at almost any cost, that the new measures like taking off our shoes and taking out our laptops were a hassle but we put up with it because of the risk of terrorism. But time has passed and other concerns have grown. The grousing over the latest measures might be another sign that how we perceive the risk of terrorism is sinking back into alignment with other concerns. Before 9/11 surveys ranked terrorism near the bottom of our list of perceived risks, but within days it was ranked as our #1 national concern, with a fear that not only was the country at risk of further terrorist action, but we were ourselves personally in danger. Recent surveys show terrorism sinking in the risk perception charts back toward its original standing, and thus the increasingly vocal displeasure over the screening. There's still a risk, but it's not the only risk in our lives. The hassle factor is rising as the fear slowly subsides.

My impression is that the complaints about airports are one more sign of rising anti-hassle backlash. People feel squeezed and hassled and just want to be left alone. We just want to get through our day with the minimum of hassles, and many of our actions are forms of hassle-minimization. Being constantly bombarded by ads, nudged by government, bothered by bills, and worried about their jobs, some people have had about all the hassling they can stand.

Being nudged, as in Nudge by Thaler and Sunstein, can move people toward better food choices, increased saving for retirement, and safer driving. Putting the healthy food at eye level in the school cafeteria and displaying it correctly can increase the number of students who put it on their tray. But if a Nudge goes too far and makes us feel hassled, it can do the opposite, driving people away.

This anti-hassle backlash extends to a host of other government efforts. The anger some feel toward health care reform seems like another anti-hassle backlash. The opposition to climate change action, particularly cap and trade, is in part a fight against being hassled by a giant nudge, the push to put a price on carbon so we burn less coal and oil. In a study about nudging people to use energy more efficiently, one group of people actually shifted their behavior the opposite direction, using more energy than expected in a anti-nudge and anti-hassle backlash, just to stick it to the man. Sarah Palin's remarks about Michelle Obama's anti-obesity efforts sound like another appeal to the anti-nudge backlash. Whether these efforts are correct or not is secondary—if people feel sufficiently hassled they'll find a reason to hate them.

To avoid being seen as another hassle, nudge's need to be subtle and easy to go along with. If you tell someone "I'm going to nudge you now," they will defend themselves. Making a nudge funny or interesting enough that we feel entertained rather than pushed around is another idea. Maybe a comic strip about climate change would be more effective. Or maybe not. But it might just catch a few people with their defenses down, and their minds open.

Glenn Croston is the author of "75 Green Businesses" and "Starting Green", and the founder of Starting Up Green, helping businesses to go green and grow green. He's also the co-creator of the Home Sustainable Challenge, encouraging people to thrive in the growing conserver economy.