Enter Rotterdam Central Station through the underground cycle park, and as soon as you open the sliding doors, you will be greeted by a citrus fragrance and calm piano music.

You may think this is a nice touch. After all, there is no harm in injecting some much-needed serenity into a hectic public transport hub like Central Station. Moreover, says RET, commuters have a more positive experience at the station because of this.

Yet every time this public toilet freshener forces itself into my nostrils, I feel a little bit dirty. It reminds me of the dystopian science fiction film Brazil, in which the government uses the eponymous song in its totalitarian and excessively bureaucratic society to calm its citizens.


The scientific discipline that serves as a breeding ground for this type of government intervention is behavioural economics, a relatively young school that is concerned with non-rational foundations for economic behaviour.

The kind of subtle influencing is also known as “nudging”, a term that has become increasingly popular with policy- makers in the last decade. Policies based on nudging often use the existing social order as their starting point. They then try to influence the decisions made by members of the public who belong to this social order by capitalising on their emotions and desires.

The question as to whether there are any other options outside the existing order is never asked. So instead of a radical review of the complex and expensive system of health insurance, insured persons are requested to have a list of symptoms ready at hand, so that they can be served by their physicians more efficiently. And instead of actually reducing waiting times, we seek to change the way in which travellers experience delays. All this is completely in line with the self-help culture that is still alive and kicking. About fifteen years ago, we all read The Secret. Now we all practice mindfulness or life-hacking. Due to this attention for self-improvement, common social issues are often reduced to individual failures.

As  a result, very few people think to question the power structures to which such unequal opportunities give rise. This is why I wonder, every time I read something about yet another clever life hack, whether a hard reset might not be a better idea.

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