Required listening for anyone in research, I think: All In The Mind Special: The Behavioural Insights Team. Interesting contributions to Claudia Hammond‘s Radio 4 documentary from the likes of Prof. Richard Thaler, Dr. David Halpern and Warwick University psychologist Neil Stewart as well as the more sceptical Nick Pearce of the IPPR.
It’s all about the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, led by Halpern, which is now in its second year of operation. Britain is the first country in the world to have such a unit at the heart of government, though Thaler’s compadre Cass Sunstein is a close adviser to Barack Obama (who I believe heads up a struggling former British outpost).
Thaler gives good quote. He sums up why Nudge is so important and relevant when he observes: “We’re busy, life is complicated, we’re not Einstein.”
If the All In The Mind programme is anything to go by, behavioural insights approaches now are widely accepted. Even critics do not doubt that, at the most basic level, incorporating behavioural insights into how government or business talks to the public is a no-brainer. In fact, it’s doing what people have always done – drafting language that will get people’s attention – but doing it in a more informed way. It’s more informed because it takes account of how people actually read, digest and act upon the messages they receive.
The Behavioural Insight Team’s approach is eminently sensible – develop communication strategies that take account of known tendencies like loss avoidance, norming, status quo bias and so on, test them all out and see which work best. For example, it works better to send a late taxpayer a letter pointing out that 90 per cent of other people paid weeks ago, than one that portrays late payment as common. They worked out the optimal wording after trialling many different forms of wording. Changes like this can save many millions of taxpayers’ money. And it’s good to hear the generally brilliant and forward-looking Cabinet Secretary Sir Gus O’Donnell is really backing this too. This experimental approach is precisely what Wendy Gordon was advising us in qual to be thinking more about back in May, on the AQR’s first ever Behavioural Economics workshop day.
I enjoyed Thaler’s rejection of the House of Lords committee report on Nudge as “massively uninformed”. Julia Neuberger‘s complaints about lack of large scale evidence do seem to ignore the many examples of real life proof of its effects, on a huge scale, in the US. The pensions and organ donation examples are discussed in Nudge itself. Nor has this come out of nowhere: in fact the Nudge agenda is a belated catching up by governments with what psychologists and even market researchers have known for decades. Psychologist Neil Stewart points out that at supermarket shelves, people are more likely to choose “the middle one” than “the end one” – even though they will swear blind that position was not a factor. Iain Janes of Eye-tracker has been producing the video evidence for this for a long time (and I’ve been lucky enough to work with him on a few).
Supermarkets have known about in-store hot-spots and the importance of the eye-level shelves for decades. And in research, we’ve been working on the basis that the behaviour we’re studying is often more about the automatic system than the reflective system (if we follow the “dual process” model of how people think) since before I started, back in 1998. The interplay between the two is, indeed, the stuff of many a qual research project.
Where I can see an area for justifiable scepticism is if behavioural insights are touted as some kind of replacement for legislation and regulation. In cash-strapped times with a conservative-liberal government, you can see how it may be tempting for them to jump on the Nudge Agenda for the wrong reasons: it’s cheap, effective and has an ideological fit for libertarians, enabling change to be made by individuals themselves, rather than imposed by government. As Nick Pearce of the IPPR says though, the government should not be lulled into thinking Nudge allows it to get away with doing less itself. (Here’s his blog IPPR – Nick Pearce’s blog). Could Nudge be used as a Trojan horse for a neo-liberal small government agenda? Possibly, but again I think this might be alarmist. The democratic implications of it all are interesting though: see my piece from a few months ago on that Organ Freeman: Thaler on Nudge.
But we should not get carried away with the idea that Nudge is somehow underhand and manipulative. Neil Stewart hits the nail on the head: the biases are there anyway; choice architecture is always there, you can’t not have it. Ignoring the Nudge advice does not make human behaviour go away. So you might as well create better choice architecture. Looked at another way, ignoring behavioural insights is actually to take a wild punt. You’re gambling that the outcome people might default to – e.g. putting away 5 per cent of salary for their pension – will be better for them and society than any possible other outcome, e.g. putting away 10 per cent of your salary. But without actually evaluating the alternatives. Surely you want the default to be one you want, not one you don’t? A no-brainer, surely.
Of course, consumer businesses I work with have long understood it. What they are looking much more closely at now is how to actually effect behavioural change. For them, the rise of BE means being much more direct than before; no longer looking just at media and brand comms but at understanding, ethnographically, brand touchpoints in a lot more depth; and examining what it takes for people to edge one way or the other at the critical moments. This is a hugely rich field for qualitative research. Shore expects to be very involved in the coming years.
My favourite quote from the programme though was when Thaler said, talking of how governments can nudge people towards more healthy lifestyles: “There aren’t many people who want to be fatter and drunker.” His figures may be falling, but Chris Moyles still has 7.16 million listeners (Rajar on Moyles). A day with him and Prof. Thaler will be seeking a fresh research grant (and possibly some botched throat surgery for Moyles).
- Organ Freeman: Thaler on Nudge (shorequalblog.com)
- What is the government’s ‘nudge unit’? | Julian Glover (guardian.co.uk)
- Stampede of the Social Animals – more BE (shorequalblog.com)
- Can the ‘nudge’ agenda help the UK’s businesses cut emissions? | Guy Newey (guardian.co.uk)
- Julia Neuberger: ‘A nudge in the right direction won’t run the big society’ (guardian.co.uk)