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Behavioural Science (influence) tools. Have you been "nudged" by your Government today

08 October 2013

In a recent publication,

the EU examined the use of Behavioural Science (influence) techniques (also called "nudges") in the creation of public policy.  

It seems that following the success of the techniques in some areas of public policy, those who create policy have started using it more commonly.  

It is a sign of the evolution of the field that the EU felt the necessity to publish a guide to the use and application of Behavioural Science techniques on public policy.

So, what is it and how is it used?

For a quick summary, follow the commentary on New Scientist.  First, the original publication "Nudge" written by Cass Sunstein in 2008 following a series of U.S. public policy successes.

And  then in june 2013 in a commentary by Evan Sellinger, pointing out some of the pitfalls as some users began to see it as a panacea for all public policy issues.

Essentially, it is possible for Governments or government advisory bodies to shape our behaviour by applying the techniques of "influence" on us en-masse. 

A few examples highlight the pros and cons of such an approach.

In the U.K.  the taxation department realised that people actually were ok with paying tax, but often had it as a low priority compared to other elements of their life.  What they needed was a push in the right direction (or so the local policy makers thought), so they utilised the influence tool of social proof (we want to be like the many others around us).  

They carefully targetted letters to people who were late in paying their tax and simply highlighted how many people in their local area had paid their taxes on time.  Importantly, they did not demand a thing.  They just showed what the others around them were doing.  The result - $160 million repaid in 6-weeks, a 15% increase.  $30 million put straight back into the economy.  One startling statistic was that if the subject of the letter was compared with those in the U.K. generally, they had far less impact on  repayments than those who were targetted with a letter highlighting how many people in their suburb had paid on time.

This approach has also worked remarkably well with teenage users of drugs and alcohol in american colleges, replacing posters of "Drinking is against school policy... just don't drink" with "did you know that 9 students out of every 10 have only 4 drinks at a party?"  and "studies show that most students don't drink at all when they go out with friends".

So these approaches, targetted at individual decision makers, can work incredibly well.

There are other approaches, however, which cause us and ethicists to question the efficacy of the approach.  For example, in a matter of public health, such as smoking or diet, there are so many complex emergent factors that it is not so easy to just "nudge" people.  and if you do give them a  "nudge" it sometimes alters another complex element within their lives, leading to more protracted health issues.

We questioned the use of these techniques recently was when preparing to launch our new monthly newsletter.  We have a database of 5,000 users of our programs over the past 8 years and we wanted to get back in touch with them and offer them our new intelligence, regular updates etc.

We debated the OPT IN or the OPT OUT approach long and hard, and in the end we made a decision based on our values and our ethics - asking people who were interested to OPT IN.  

Governments use an OPT OUT approach in some countries for organ donation.  This means you have to actively say you do not want to participate, otherwise you immediately become a donor when you get your vehicle license.  

An opt-in approach would mean that you have to actively sign up to be a donor.  

Successive governments have relied on the approach that people will simply not go to the effort of opting out, and so their rate of organ donation increases quite dramatically. 

The question remains:  How many times this year, or this month, have you been influenced into making decisions without you even knowing it was happening.  And how do we control / temper/ target the use of these tools for the right people and the right behaviours?

Watch this space as you ask yourself. "Have I been nudged by my government today?"



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