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.

Former BBC journalist and manager in Belfast, Manchester and London, Editor Spolight; Political Editor BBC NI; Current Affairs Commissioning editor BBC Radio 4; Editor Political and Parliamentary Programmes, BBC Westminster; former London Editor Belfast Telegraph. Hon Senior Research Fellow, The Constitution Unit, Univ Coll. London