Do people think rationally… or do they need a nudge?

brain with nudge ideas

by Alan Gillies

One of the benefits of working in any information service, and in the IDOX Information Service in particular, is the way you tend to find relevant information in unexpected sources. Thus, for example, we recently came across an interesting article on behaviour change, not in a psychology or management journal, but in the most recent issue of Environmental Health News.

“Until the 1970s it was generally accepted that people were rational in their thinking…” claims the article, before going on to outline the development of ‘nudge’ theory which aims to use subtle methods to encourage people to change their behaviour rather than relying on a rational decision to change for their own good. The author’s focus is on food hygiene ratings and he suggests that simply highlighting to food premises how they compare with others in the city will motivate them to improve.  The suggested framework for developing such an intervention is based on the Cabinet Office/Institute for Government MINDSPACE  checklist.

There is increasing interest in such public policy interventions, but they are not without controversy. Stoke on Trent City Council, for example, has recently been criticised for spending £10,000 on a behaviour change approach which involves sending out text messages to encourage obese people to lose weight.

The UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team (the ‘Nudge Unit’), was set up in 2010 and in its first two years claimed to have achieved savings of around 22 times its cost. It has conducted randomised controlled trials to test various approaches to behaviour change, finding, for example, that sending out personalised text message reminders for unpaid court fines resulted in much improved collection rates, with an estimated expected reduction of up to 150,000 bailiff interventions annually. The unit has recently been turned into a joint venture company, owned by its employees, the UK government, and Nesta.


Articles referred to in this blog  (please note  you must be a member to view them):

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