Persuading people to behave better

How do we improve people’s behaviour, from stopping rioting in Derry to going “ green,” even to tackling obesity? Tough one, isn’t it? Too massive a question to cope with in this form ? Yet it is one of the most insistent questions we face. Generations of welfare and eleven years of relative prosperity haven’t transformed society. Economics aren’t enough. This is why in the desolate community of East Glasgow well out of his comfort zone, that sharp student of the zeitgeist David Cameron has been shifting ground, talking about the difference between right and wrong, repairing the broken society and getting people to take responsibility for themselves.

“Changing our culture is not easy or quick. You cannot pull a lever. You cannot do it top-down. But you can give a lead. You can give a nudge. You can make a difference if you are clear where you stand.

But top-down moral lectures from an Etonian went out with Gladstone. How then can the message come across differently to a society that is quite pessimistic about the future?

“Nudging.” Its that word again. Behind that simple word lies a whole new approach
to influencing human behaviour. I’ve been finding out more.. and it turns out it’s a more intriguing idea than I first thought….

Cameron’s close colleague George Osborne has been talking about the behavioural psychology that could make a difference. Called “nudging”, it basically adapts the familiar theme of appealing to people’s self interest to get them to change behaviour. He gives this example of how it works:

Labour’s response is to push councils towards fines and fortnightly bin collections that won’t work. Behavioural economics and social psychology helps us understand why. Evidence shows that people respond much better to incentives than punishments. Look at America, where waste companies such as RecycleBank pay households in more than 500 cities and towns about £20 a month for recycling. They can afford this because of savings they deliver for local authorities in landfill tax bills.

You can see how it develops. Reduce car tax for small green-friendly cars rather than just increase it for 4X4s. And what about restorative justice instead of/as well as harsher penalties for asbo clients?

Nudging and similar theories have attracted the attention of Matthew Taylor, once Tony Blair’s chief strategist across the political fence. For him, Osborne’s pitch offers no magic bullet

Nudging is not a brand new technique that avoids the problems of all the other techniques, such as perverse outcomes, bad implementation or cheating. It is simply…- an alternative frame for policy making involving a more subtle evidence-based way of thinking about human behaviour, rather than relying on the mythical figure of the entirely rational, self interested, perfectly informed subject of economic theory

In a later post in the Daily Telegraph’s Brassneck blog (Mick’s other space), Taylor has been trying to place Cameron’s positioning, helped by nudging. As a political technique, it boils down to this:

The greatest gift of an aspiring politician is to be able to convince the public they can have their cake and eat it too. Blair was brilliant at this.

Yet it’s more complex and interesting than that. Daniel Finkelstein in the Times rolls out the prospectus of behavioural studies and concludes:

Instead of seeing humans as rational calculating machines, behavioural economists have been conducting experiments to assess how real choices are made. On paper, two alternatives may look economically identical. But the way that they are framed and the context will, in the real world, determine the choice. Human beings are, for instance, highly loss-averse. They will take risks to avoid a loss, while behaving conservatively when a possible gain is in the offing.


For instance, in the past two weeks we have had discussion of obesity and of knife crime. Social norms have hardly figured. If everybody thinks that everybody else is getting fat, then more people will put on weight. The campaigns designed to reduce obesity may be spreading it. Similarly the very idea that every young person is carrying a knife increases knife crime. The obvious route of making such behaviour seem odd and isolated appears not to have occurred to any major politician

This thinking is in its infancy but there’s lots to learn from here.

  • kensei

    Economics in two words: “Incentives work”.

    But those incentives can be both carrot and stick. Really “nudging” is simply offering some financial or other incentive in order to change behaviour. If the Conservative are suggesting Labour have been making too heavy use of the stick at the expense of the carrot, then they are probably right. But well formed policy really need to take both into account.

    I don’t buy the idea that anti-knife or anti-obesity campaigns promote that which they are trying to condemn. It is true that people take acceptable self image form those around them (there is a term for it but I can’t remember or find it on google for the life of me) but I’d hazard a guess it is only truly powerful in within your own peer groups. Does it matter if you know there is an obsesity crisis, if all your work colleagues are perfectly toned? I’d guess that any such effect in a national campaign would be heavily outweighed by the benefits of more disseminated information.

    I think the best campaigns are the ones that can manage to create a real social stigma to a negative behaviour. The best example is drink-driving, though its also true of smoking to a lessor extent.

  • wild turkey

    According to Sunstein and Thaler (both associated with University of Chicago and informal advisors to Obama) Libertarian Paternalism Is Not An Oxymoron. (University of Chicago Law Review)

    Until the empirical evidence is in, the jury is out…however anything that undermines or challenges the PC nannyism of state based compulsion by either limiting or banning choice is to welcomed.

    My limited understanding of nudging indicates that altering default options’ i.e. what is generally perceived as normal, is fundamental to the nudge. That said, if politicians; their advisors and the wider commentariat are at all serious about nudging, a suggestion. It it this. All ballots, for all elections; local, devolved govt, national parliaments, Europe, should have a new and additional line…’None of the above’. If the none of the above gains the largest number of votes, election null and void.

    Crucial to nudging is how the array of choices is presented and, therefore, perceived. On a second thought, ‘None of the above’ should be ‘None of the following’ and be placed at the top of the ballot.

    When are the next assembly elections? Pilot exercise anyone?

  • billie-Joe Remarkable

    These Tory buzzwords are great. Anything else happening on those right-wing think tank sites?

  • Greenflag

    ‘Anything else happening on those right-wing think tank sites? ‘

    Yes – WTF happened to all those bright neo con ideas of personal responsibility and people being made accountable for their actions. And the Government taking a back seat and letting unfettered ‘capitalism ‘ get on with it ?

    The list of those who are now behind bars be they ex Enron corporate thieves or Freddie Mac or Fanni May wannabees or a whole list of moral majority hypocritical neo con Republican and (some Democratic ) is just testimony to the fact that there is nowt so ‘queer ‘ (in a mainly non sexual sense ‘ as folk .

    Humans are not entirely ‘rational ‘ animals . I knew a chap who had’nt a bean to his name . He win’s 60,000 and within a week he’s complaining he should have won 100,000 as 60,000 is nothing . A ‘holocaust’ survivor a month after being rescued by allied troops was heard complaining that somebody else should not be allowed to sit at his favourite table in a Viennese restaurant .

    Eaten bread is soon forgotten which is why Marie Antoinette presumably advised noshing on cake for the hoi polloi ?

    The problem with governent ‘nudging’ is that people who are into ‘bad behaviour’ can very quickly find examples from among the ranks of those who govern or ‘nudge ‘ etc etc of ‘behaviour’ which exceeds anything which the most yobbish could aspire to .

    Obesity is simply a phenomenon of lifestyle – sedentary existisence and the biological fact that our ‘bodies’ were not designed to have acess 24 hours a day to ‘food’ . Instead they were designed for periods of feast and famine . Major lifestyle change is required to alter one’s tendency to put on the avoirdupois.

    And we all know how humans deal with ‘tough ‘ change when it affects their personal daily existence .

    Perhaps the soon to be on us ‘recession’ will reveal new depths to which our species can descend as those who have cling on to what they can while those who have not will be unable to hold on to even that which they have not 🙁

  • eranu

    ive heard talk of a health MOT in the past. i wonder if an incentive to keep your body healthy would work. if it was possible to earn extra tax credits by getting a high score in a health MOT every 5 years, maybe that would be enough carrot to stop people turning into fat slobs.
    points could be scored for low cholesterol, bmi in the healthy range etc. maybe also points for gym membership and proof of regular attendance. or proof of some sort of sporting activity or even something like hill walking. points scored for action taken and results achieved.
    that could translate to paying less tax and getting an extra couple of hundred quid in your pocket. maybe there could be a few tax scales where the super fit get a greater reward, giving people more incentive to increase their healthy life style.
    the problem i can see is whether the money lost in tax income would be less than the money saved in health service costs. also it would be a long term thing so money would have to be lost for a few years before any reduction of strain on the health service would be seen. maybe thats all been costed and found not to add up..

  • Rory

    There is only one way to make people behave better – discipline! In support of which argument I offer the recent good behaviour of Formula 1 gazillionaire, Max Mosley, a man with a great fondness for discipline (sans any Nazi connotations it goes without saying).

  • wild turkey


    Is that the voice of experience speaking?

  • aquifer

    ‘Economics in two words: “Incentives work”.’

    But market theories tend to assume perfect information. People just do not have the time to acquire this and must choose and act quickly.

    Direction or trusted advice can reduce irrational and destructive choices, and also allow people to express altruism or human solidarity. This has value for some.

    Limiting choice is often done for the greater good. e.g. How roads are marked up.

    Allowing an ill-informed confusion to reign in economic affairs ends up as a restriction on freedom of expression, also for those who wish to reject altruism and responsibility for others.

  • Rory

    I couldn’t possibly say, Wild Turkey – it’s much too painful for me to recall.