Nudge, Nudge

How many of our choices in life are made independently and and how many are influenced by external intentions?

This is a significant question when it comes to how we should best try to steer people in the right directions. I am not really talking from a marketing point of view, but then I am. What I mean is that we are all used to having information fed to us in a way to persuade us to buy or get involved with something, explicit advertising, product placement and inference is used through all forms of media. However, we are perhaps less aware of the subtlety of some of the influencing that is attempted because it often does not take the form of blatant advertising.

This slightly more subliminal culture of pushing information to us is designed to change our habits in a way that we think it’s something we have decided to do. Some people are already familiar with product placement, where, for instance, a certain make of mixer is sat on a shelf in the background of a cookery programme, or a lorry load of vermouth is toppled over in a spy film. Firms pay good money to ensure this happens because it works. But underneath this layer of persuasive presentation is another, far more camouflaged technique in the undergrowth.

Nudging people in a desired direction is all the rage these days, especially since it carries with it the promise of changing behaviours for a longer period of time. It involves not stating the obvious, but something which leads the observer or recipient of that information to make an inevitable conclusion themselves. Here are some examples:

  • Road signs such as “24 deaths in the past year” – The driver is left to decide whether their speed is too fast, based upon the statistic presented. They are reminded to recall the Highway Code and think about the nature of the road they are traveling on. Alternative to warning signs.
  • Give only £2 a month to save an endangered animal – It’s not a huge amount of money, but, once one is ‘subscribed’, one is identified as a person sympathetic to a cause and therefore likely to be influenced by further targeted persuasive presentations to increase the donation in the future. Alternative to appealing for one-off donations.
  • Car insurance discount for membership of an owners’ club – If you can be bothered taking an interest in your vehicle, you should be less likely to make a claim because you have an inherent pride in the model you drive. Indeed, you may spend more money in the long run on maintenance and improvements. Alternative to higher premiums.
  • Regularly cleaned public spaces – If there is no litter around, people are less likely to drop litter and the reverse is true as well. Alternative to instructional signage such as ‘Keep Britain Tidy’ or ‘Don’t drop litter’.
  • Donate your old clothes to a charity shop for a voucher – Encouragement to feel less guilty about adding to one’s wardrobe through promoting a feeling of philanthropy by clearing space in an ethical and considerate way. Also has raised the quality of clothes donated to charity. Alternative to greater waste management costs.
  • Ornamental flies embossed into urinals – Helps those who have to stand aim straight! Alternative to larger cleaning bills.

I am not criticising these in any way, merely presenting them here as examples of the Nudge Theory techniques in practice. Having said that, there are some more negative embodiments of the technique around today:

  • Home makeover TV shows – Sorry, but all these are are ways of encouraging people to be more materialistic.
  • Short-term loan ’till payday’ companies – Persuading vulnerable people that it is OK to spend what you do not already have.
  • Unlimited texts and data packages – Nothing is free.
  • Loyalty and rewards cards – Trying to reduce the times you shop elsewhere.

The success of many of these techniques, which avoid direct instruction but have a positive effect on behaviour modification int he main, has led the government to consider how they might use it to help promote health and well-being. The technique such as this is based in part upon the work of Thaler and Sunstein who, in their 2009 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, make a convincing argument for avoiding legislative overkill by promoting behaviour change. Not everybody agrees that this is a coherent argument, however, and some see it as nothing more than a controlling technique in the wake of the popularity of neurolinguistic programming (NLP) and even restrictive regimes.

So, the ‘Wheel of health’ employed on may food packages, indeed, any nutritional information, standardised in format, enables people over time to make comparisons to regulate, for instance, fat intake. Well, that is the theory. Whether it works for everybody is another matter, as we have an increasing problem with obesity and unfitness.

Part of the problem is the open market where all manner of foodstuffs are available, much high in sugar, salt and fat content, but convenient to prepare. However, poor diet is not the only issue, excessive consumption, even things like simply a tendency not to walk places and to live a more sedentary existence in both work and leisure is pertinent to this issue.

Other techniques are, of course, employed as well – outright warnings, lifestyle television, celebrity endorsement. Speaking of which, isn’t it amazing how many ‘D-rate’ celebrities release a fitness video at the start of the year and then spend the rest of the year populating the red-tops with their life traumas. This paradox is also related to Nudge Theory, as the perceived behaviour of certain people, if accepted, can filter down to others. There is, in fact, a whole entertainment industry based upon the shortcomings of life, often manufactured by the public themselves, and whole solution industries to help solve the problems.

Much as I may moan about governmental policies in some areas, I do agree that certain things need to be striven for – health and well-being being two of the most important. However, the commercialisation of almost everything has meant that the players all have to benefit from the deal, resulting in a vicious circle of cause and remedy, rather than prevention. Examples include:

  • Cars are improved to increase the safety of occupants and pedestrians yet made faster and more powerful.
  • Meal Deals look like good value, but inevitably increase consumption, wheel of health or not.
  • Furniture and other expensive products are manufactured to look good for a couple of years rather than a lifetime.
  • Saving for retirement is a good idea, but longevity means that it still won’t be enough in the long term so other income will be needed, meaning dependency on savings alone might be an unrealistic gamble.
  • Allowing betting shops and night clubs to establish themselves in great numbers, encouraging the very kind of behaviours some of the Nudge Theory techniques are being invested in to limit.

Perhaps some people are seeing the wood for the trees, and are learning that it is dangerous to take things purely on face value. What matters in the long run is whether each individual person is better off physically and mentally and is more protected from harm. Until we see initiatives that are provided at low cost or free for the public good, without the temptations of the countering facets of consumerism, we still have a long way to go.