In some ways, Fay Niker had been working towards her specific position as a postdoc at the McCoy Family Center for Ethics in Society for years. She had seen the call for applications years ago while completing an MPhil at Oxford, and it couldn’t have come at a better time. Niker had been questioning how she’d be able to apply her interests in philosophy, psychology, and political theory to academia and had even been offered a job with Teach First (the UK equivalent of Teach for America). “In some senses, it was my excitement that things like [the Ethics in Society postdoc] existed and the fact that I could do that work in a place like Stanford made me turn down the Teach First job,” Niker says. She applied to a number of PhD programs, instead. When the call for applications from Stanford came around again as she finished her doctorate in political theory at the University of Warwick, the application was a no-brainer. “There aren’t that many places that support and empower this kind of work in young scholars. Given my interests, it seemed like a natural home for me. I’ve found that to be just as true in practice.”
As an Ethics in Society Fellow, Niker continues the work she began as an undergraduate revolving around the concept of “nudging,” a behavioral science theory that rose to prominence in 2008 with the publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness (a book which also sparked Niker’s interest in the topic). In a nutshell, nudging has to do with decision-making and how its context may be influenced by the “choice architect” to evoke a desired outcome without engaging in any actual coercion. (A harmless example is placing a bowl of fresh fruit at eye level in an office kitchen to promote healthful snacking in the workplace.)
Her interests are quite timely for today’s public debate surrounding controversies like Facebook’s influence over the 2016 election, and in fact, Niker’s research dwells in part on the implications of what have sometimes been called “persuasive technologies.” “That’s a clever name,” she says, “because there’s a sense that persuasion has a normative valence as opposed to manipulation, so it has kept questions at bay.” But Niker is interested in asking questions. Currently, she’s working on a project called Freedom in the Age of Attention. What does freedom look like in a world full of these persuasive technologies? How do these technologies persuade people, and when?
She’s also enjoyed the opportunity to teach. This past quarter, she led Introduction to Global Justice and was impressed by her students’ motivation to make a positive mark on the world, regardless of their field of study. “Scientists were there because they’re driven by the problems of climate change; developmental economists were in the room. They all cared about the issues and they want to do something with their lives that’s going to help.”
SARA BUTTON is a writer and editor. She lives in Menlo Park.