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Nudge: how science is being used to influence our behaviour

Do you ever feel you are being influenced by things beyond your control? Well you’re not alone. In 2009 the UK government put together a special unit (the Behavioural Insights Team AKA the Nudge Unit), dedicated to using insights from behavioural economics and psychology to influence our behaviour.

Although the Nudge Unit may sound like something from a bleak dystopian future, where our every action is monitored and controlled, it’s best not to judge the idea too hastily. So, let’s take a minute to get acquainted with the ‘nudge’…

The idea behind the nudge stems from a simple fact about human behaviour: ‘no matter how smart a person is, many of the basic choices they make on a day-to-day basis will be purely impulsive with little or no logical basis‘. This may sound unusual, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense. Could you imagine how hard life would be if every mundane daily decision required deep contemplation? You’d probably never even make it out of bed in the morning!

Scientists believe that our brains accomplish tasks by relying on two different systems or modes of thinking. System-one is a bit of an air head; it’s fast, automatic and emotional. Whilst system-two is like your inner professor; slow, ruminating and logical. It’s no secret that when it comes to important decisions, system-two is your best bet. But, we don’t always have the time or resources to engage this system, meaning that many of our everyday mental decisions are actually made ‘on the fly’ by system-one. To test this hypothesis, try answering the following question:

Baseball bat

A bat and ball cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Can you hear system-one shouting out the answer ’10p’? This answer may instinctively feel correct, but with a bit of extra thought it’s easy to come to the correct answer of ‘5p’. For more examples of the system-one/system-two divide see the video below:

 

Yes, poor impulsive system-one has many flaws. It is heavily swayed by social pressure, easily tricked, and has a tendency to favour short-term pleasure over long-term success; and with these flaws comes a certain level of predictability. It is this predictability that is now being utilised by the government’s Nudge unit to influence our behaviour.

In the 2008 book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, behavioural scientists from the University of Chicago laid out guidelines on how to apply behavioural nudges to policy. Now, six years on, concepts from this work are being used across the world to influence everything from tax fraud to antisocial bathroom habits.

Here are a couple of examples:

Schiphol flies:

AuthoFly urinalrities at Schiphol airport in Amsterdam were at a loss over excessive cleaning bills in their male toilets – where patrons seemed to hit everything but the urinal. However, economist Aad Kieboom had a solution. Rather than posting signs in the room asking patrons to improve their aim, he suggested that airport authorities etched a small picture of a fly into each urinal. This unusual solution worked by giving men something to aim at and reportedly reduced the airport’s lavatory cleaning bill by 80%. This is also arguably the most celebrated example of a nudge (a strategy for changing human behaviour based on an understanding of what real people are like).

Manchester tax dodgers:

In a recent document the UK’s Nudge unit discuss how the application of behavioural insights can be used to reduce fraud, error and debt. Indeed, even our own fair city has begun to participate in nudge politics. In 2011, Manchester residents claiming single person discount on their council tax were randomly sent one of three different letters, asking them to fill out a form to renew their claim. The first form was a standard document commonly used by the council, the other two however used nudges in an attempt to encourage honesty. These nudges were pretty simple, including simplified language, clear messages and a reminder that providing false information is an act of fraud. Amazingly, the study suggests that simply re-wording these forms did indeed lead to a reduction in the number of fraudulent claims.

So, our impulsive system-one certainly seems susceptible to the odd nudge, but many questions still remain. For example, which nudges work best? – Has anyone spotted the motorway signs stating ‘Bin your litter, other people do’? This sign was based on the theory that people are more likely to comply if they think that complying is a social norm. Personally, I find this particular nudge a bit condescending. OK, so I’m yet to throw litter out may car window just to make a point, but I also don’t feel compelled to comply. Also, when does a nudge become a shove and who decides the best direction to nudge people in? These are all important questions that need some serious thought. But, overall I think that the nudge is certainly an interesting concept and one that could offer more insights into human behaviour.

What are your views? Has anyone spotted any more hidden nudges? Add your comment below, other people do!


Post by: Sarah Fox

About The Brain Bank North West

The brain bank comprises a group of scientists from the North West of England eager to enthuse and entertain with their scientific banter. To learn more about who we are see the our 'about' page. You can also find us on twitter @brainbankmanc or email us brainbankmanc@gmail.com.
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2 Responses to Nudge: how science is being used to influence our behaviour

  1. Rine says:

    Hello Dr. Sarah Fox,

    I’m the assistant editor of marketcommunity.com (http://www.marketcommunity.com/) – a leading media/community within branding and marketing in Denmark (10.000+ marketing professionals as members)
    I just read an article on your blog, that I found very interesting, and I think it could be relevant for our members.
    Would it be ok for you, if we publish your article on our site?
    We will off course credit you and link to your webpage.

    You can contact me on mail: rine@marketcommunity.com

    Best Recards
    Assistent editor, MARKET Community
    Rine Søgaard

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