Want People to Change? Nudge Them.

From the Washington Post:

"Small changes steer kids toward smarter school lunch choices

With the spotlight on childhood obesity, schools across the country are looking for ways to get kids to eat more fruits and vegetables. In New York, the Department of Health decided to do some research. How much, it wondered, would a school need to cut its prices for apples, oranges and bananas to increase sales by 5 percent over a year?

Brian Wansink was called in to play detective. But the director of Cornell's Food and Brand Lab soon discovered he had been hired to answer the wrong question. Price wasn't the problem. It was the presentation.

In the school cafeterias Wansink surveyed, whole fruits were displayed in steel bins in dimly lighted areas of the lunch line. Wansink went to discount store T.J. Maxx and bought a cheap wire fruit rack. He found an extra desk lamp, which he used to shine on the fruit. "Sales of fruit in one school went up 54 percent. Not in a semester: by the end of the second week," Wansink said. "It would have gone up faster, but they kept running out of fruit."

... At a New York middle school, Wansink found that when the salad bar was moved to a prominent location near the cashiers, sales increased by between 200 and 300 percent."

These are real-world examples of the power of nudges: small changes in the structure of choices that lead to a desired outcome. Nudge -- Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth & Happiness, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, advocates setting up programs so that the best choices are also the ones that people following their human tendencies will choose. The authors are clear that it is not about removing choice. All the choices are still available; students who prefer less healthy choices are not deterred from buying them.


Nudge Cover

Nudge is written for people the authors call 'choice architects'. "A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions."

Nudge deals with the part of change that the Heath brothers call 'shaping the path'.

Every situation that involves a decision can be arranged to influence behaviour. Yes, it sounds manipulative, but it's important to recognize that every way to set things up will affect peoples' choices. There is no neutral. You have to set up the school cafeteria somehow, why not set it up in a way that the healthy foods are more likely to be selected?

Thaler & Sunstein are also students of human nature. They point out many of the common fallacies and mistakes that can get in the way of people making the best choices for themselves. For example:

  • We have a tendency to not choose. People are busy and procrastinate, so they don't make changes. This is called status quo bias. A choice architect then, should make the status quo choice the one that leads to what is best for people. Give everyone a recycling bin and allow them to opt out of using the program (not opt in -- because status quo bias says they won't get around to it).
  • Humans seem to be more motivated by knowing what they will lose than what they will gain. So if you want to encourage someone to choose more energy efficient appliances, don't tell them about the money they will save by using the new appliance, but about the money they will lose by continuing to use the old one.

We're also very influenced by social behaviour. If we think more people are doing something, then we are more likely to take part. [Note to politicians -- if you want more people to vote, emphasizing how few people actually do it is not the way to achieve that goal.]

People respond to social nudges in unexpected ways. A California study looked at ways to increase energy conservation. Households were given feedback about their energy use. Over time, those who consumed less than average began to consume more, while those who consumed more than average reduced their consumption. This is called a boomerang effect; when people know they are doing better than average, they tend to reduce their behaviour.

Some of the households were also given a little social nudge in the form of an emoticon. People who consumed less energy received a happy face, while big energy users got a sad face. People who got the sad face reduced their energy more than big energy users who just got the data. People who got the happy face kept their energy consumption low: a simple symbol was enough to reverse the boomerang effect! Basically, the happy face was a nudge to let people know that they were doing a good thing and to encourage them to continue.

Nudges can be used to influence nearly every kind of behaviour. After outlining the basic approach, the authors describe various ways nudging could help people make better decisions in handling money, choosing health care, saving the planet, and more.


[Source: May 2010 WasteWatch ]