Nudge Towards Change

Nudge Theory has been written off in some quarters as pseudo-science and worshipped by others as a silver bullet in bringing about behaviour change. Wherever it lies within that range,  in the last few years Nudge has become more and more prevalent in our everyday lives often without us knowing about it. With both the private and the public sector on board, our choices are being ‘nudged’ towards the more productive and the more beneficial. But what constitutes a nudge? The authors of the book ‘Nudge’, Richard H. Thaler & Cass R, Sunstein are quick to defend the idea from accusations of government imperialism. The point is not, they say, to deny people the choices they have every right to make, but to encourage a more beneficial choice without making it any harder to choose the wrong one. The answer they say is ‘liberal paternalism’, or a little ‘nudge’.

Nudge is the answer to the fatal flaw of economics, people are assumed to be able to ‘think like Albert Einstein, store the memory of IBM’s Big Blue, and exercise the willpower of Mahatma Gandhi’, but as we know this is simply not the case. The idea of Nudge is defended by libertarians because this ‘homo economicus’ as it is referred to by Thaler will not be influenced by the effects of Nudge theory, but us mere homo sapiens are. All choices are still on the table, but when something as simple as ordering healthy food to be arranged at eye-level with the junk food at the back, or installing a bin with a cartoonish fall sound every time something was thrown away, a nudge in the right direction doesn’t seem like such an intrusive form of paternalism after all.

In fact, these examples are some of the more intrusive forms of nudge. Thaler and Sunstein’s theory hinges heavily on the ‘status quo bias’, the idea that people automatically go along with the default option. We see this in something as simple as mobile phone ring tones, the levels of customisation are near limitless yet we still hear our ringtone in the office and check our phone only to realise it was the guy next door. Why then, should we not control the power of inertia to do good by default, with an easy option to change if we feel strongly against it? We are seeing this change already in governments around the world. In the UK, the automatic pension enrolment scheme is a prime example of the power of inertia at work. Very few people will say that they think pension contributions are not in their best interest, but the both of setting them up is a disincentive.  By allowing an opt out of the pension scheme everyone still has just as much choice, but through the status quo bias we are seeing one of the biggest dangers of modern society start to be addressed. Equally in Wales, the automatic enrolment of organ donation as an ‘opt-out’ system has been voted through in the Assembly and so some of the 90% of people who support organ donation in the UK who are not in the 32% who have signed up to be donors will now be able to benefit others.

Nudge is becoming more and more a part of our lives; it has the potential to improve without the need to mandate or control. The UK government has a ‘Behavioural Insights Unit’, nicknamed ‘the Nudge Unit’, embedded in the Cabinet Office looking at ways to use Nudge rather than a more direct, traditional approach. With both UK and US government administration looking to Libertarian Paternalism to find that political utopia between accusations of the nanny state or nonchalant removal of care, its potential is still unclear. But when private and public industries can both help the society they inhabit without force or large investment, we should surely aim to give them a nudge to do so.

A quick example of how to nudge people to take the stairs rather than an escalator:

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