You have to understand behaviour in order to change it
Since its inception in 2008 Nudge has emerged as a prominent and effective strategy for policy development and generated new avenues for working with and understanding behaviour. Building on old insights and new research Nudge provides an intuitive framework, and new tools to those whose job it is to change public and private behaviour. But it has also sparked new debates about public and private organisations use of psychology for manipulatory and self-serving means.
- Published: 17-06-2015
If you ever happen to browse through and academic journal dealing with politics and policy you would immediately notice that most, if not all, of the articles would be written by economists or legal scholars. If, on the other hand, you open a Marketing journal you would mostly find articles from psychologists.
This academic divide between marketing and policy is odd, since they both work with understanding and changing behaviour. Although marketing and policy has different goals, one is to optimise sales and the other welfare, they often face the same types of problems such as: how do we get people to do something, whether it’s signing up for a certain data plan or paying taxes on time.
In 2008 Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who both are prominent academics from the field of policy, proposed to bridge the gap between policy and marketing. In their book, “Nudge - Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth and Happiness”, they both suggested that politicians and bureaucrats should supplement their traditional solutions with so called “nudges”, and provided insights into how and why nudges could work for the common good.
Since then, and perhaps owing to its popularity in the American and British administrations, Nudge has breached the policy domain and become a general strategy for behavioural change in both public and private domains. But sadly, popularity has also caused the term to be both misunderstood and misapplied.
What’s in a nudge?
Thaler and Sunstein loosely define a nudge as “anything, which causes a change in behaviour without changing the prices or limiting the options one has”. This definition isn’t very helpful (unless you happen to have a degree in Micro-economics).
A more accurate definition would be that Nudge is “a strategy built on the assumption that human decision-making is predictably flawed - which attempts to use these flaws as part of the solution”. A flaw in our decision making is typically called a bias and research in cognitive and social psychology has shown how biases play an intricate part in shaping our behaviour - often towards less optimal outcomes.
Biases work “behind our backs” by shaping the impressions and information we receive from the world as well as producing predictable behavioural patterns as a response to a problem. If this sounds abstract a small demonstration might be in order.
Imagine you have to choose between two treatments for a given illness. One is surgery, which provides the highest survival rate in the long run but carries a small risk of immediate death. The other is medicinal and has no short-term risks but a much lower survival rate overall.
I can frame the information in two ways.
1. Out of 100 patients that chose surgery 10 of them died immediately after
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Andreas Maaløe Jespersen
Andreas is a Ph.d student at Roskilde University, researcher for the iNudgeyou network and part of the Initiative for Science, Society and Policy. His research centers on applying behavioural research to public policy. That includes smarter policy initiatives, but also smarter regulation that includes what we know about human behaviour.