by Peter John. Original source: Elgar Blog
Peter John explains nudges, the concept of developing behavioural insights to solve complex policy problems.
Nudge has come of age. It is ten years since the publication of the now famous book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunsten, Nudge. That book did so much to introduce people to the core ideas of behavioural economics as well as show practical ways to influence behaviour in socially beneficial ways that are not costly for the individuals concerned. Since 2008 nudge has expanded across the world in nudge units and other organisations wanting to use behavioural insights. Successful policies include organ donation, paying taxes, charitable giving, searching for work, and educational attainment for low aspiration groups. Typical nudges include social norms, commitment devices, and defaults.
So where now for nudge? Is it just more of the same and expanding the domains and numbers of nudges, finding out when and where they work? Yes to that, but there is also an opportunity to do something different, especially now the proof of concept has been established, which can increase the depth of nudge. Nudgers need to think more about achieving long-term changes for citizens and getting more buy in and engagement from them when introducing nudges. This involves encouraging people to reflect or think a bit, either before or after the nudge, or even when it takes place.
Consider a classic nudge, such as getting people to eat fruit by placing it near the till in a cafeteria in place of the usual sweets and chocolates. It relies on an automatic process of putting something on one tray while waiting out of impulse. But are fruit and chocolate substitutes? After all, chocolate is a ‘guilty pleasure’, packed full of refined sugar, whereas fruit, while enjoyable, does not quite have this draw. So how to get from one to the other? It may need a bit more a think to get there or citizens may need a boost to help them think is this a good idea before doing it, or while doing it, and for them to think about their choices afterwards. In other words, policy-makers need to help citizens go on a journey of behaviour change rather than manipulating them to do things they might not understand fully. The great advantage of this approach, which is called ‘nudge plus’, is that it is more ‘bottom up’ and involves a conversation between citizens and governments. It gets over some of the worries people have about nudge that it is paternalist and too secretive.
Nudge plus is not like a full-on deliberation, which takes up too much time for most people. It involves prompting thoughts in a low-cost way. Examples of nudge pluses are use of CBT in getting people to think ‘slow’ when making choices; educative nudges to help people work out costs and benefits, such as for treatment choices in health care, which are sometimes called ‘boosts’; helping people prepare for commitment devices, such as thinking why they might want to go on a new diet; and deploying more feedback as part of nudging to show how well people are doing and to encouraging communication with each other through social media.
How Far to Nudge is both an introduction to the subject and a proposal for nudge plus interventions. The book traces diffusion of behavioural public policies across the world, which governments have introduced to improve policy outcomes. It reviews why governments need to address citizen behaviours, conveying the origins of behavioural economics and explaining how its ideas become translated into public policies. It traces the emergence of nudge units, and gives examples of the kinds of initiatives policy-makers have introduced, such as on organ donation and improving tax collection. The many criticisms of nudge are reviewed and ethical questions are also addressed. It makes the case for a more radical version of nudge, nudge plus, that takes into account the capacity for individual reflection, and which can be used by any group or citizen, even to nudge the nudgers!