302 - A nudge is as good as a wink

You.gov survey  link. Survey of 14th May allows  sight of correlation between Remain/Leave and opinion on relaxation of lockdown. Remainers were much more likely to indicate that the relaxation was too soon, too much and unclear, while the Leavers were more ambivalent. The article builds upon this: Remainers placed more emphasis on the value of care and the need to minimise harm, whereas leavers placed more emphasis on the value of personal liberty. When evaluating an action or a policy, remainers would ask “will this cause harm?”, whereas leavers would be inclined to ask “will something restrict our freedom?”. Trying not to characterise the Brexit division all over again, we see a division between the balances between care/harm and liberty/restriction that might be nearer an appreciation of essential approaches to life. Unsurprisingly to me, the care/harm reasoning is stronger among women. This might help to explain the gender difference in concern around coronavirus, and why male and female leaders have responded differently to the first wave of the virus. We also know that endorsement of liberty is associated with vaccine hesitancy, so we can expect those who are opposed to further lockdown to also be more likely to oppose a mandatory vaccine.

So to 'nudge theory', which argues that the way to cause people to change an attitude, particularly a behaviour, is to make it very much easier to take the preferred action. This is called a nudge. Hospital staff, for example, know that washing their hands is important, but are still more likely to do so if hand sanitiser is easily available and visible in the hospital.

I've indicated before that the state is very interested in ways to affect behaviour and ways to effect behavioural change. Here's what the authors of the popular paper [4] said: 
A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.


Of course, we might ask when a nudge becomes a push or a shove. I shall limit the idea of nudge to simply making it easier for people to do something. The reasoning behind what makes that something a desired action is also left vague. However, where we have some things which are generally agreed, such as say, being generally greener, or eating less meat, we might approve of small changes that make it easier to follow a desired change. That makes a nudge more like an incentive; using the example of the fruit at eye level, where is the incentive to a fruit seller (think supermarket if you prefer) to put the fruit at eye-level? On the other hand, you can see why a catering manager might put the healthy foods at the front of the serving area and the 'unhealthy' at the other end.

Nudge examples: [3] painting a housefly onto a urinal to encourage subsequent hand-washing (Schiphol airport, seen); making the nudged option the default; instead of siting 'bad' foods near the checkout, placing 'good' foods; the sight of 'what other people liked' on a webpage is a nudge; suggesting that the thing for £20 is worth £200 is a nudge (even when £20 is too much); encouraging people to share a quiz result is itself a nudge; all those challenges on Facebook are nudges; using smaller plates is a nudge to reduce food waste [9].  None of this is intended to suggest that nudges are necessarily good or bad, merely to recognise them. Yes, it is easy, but is this easy behaviour something you actually want to do?

Best of BIT [7]

Education A 34% increase in acceptances of pupils from underrepresented schools to top universities, following a letter to the pupils from a top-tier student with a similar background.

NHS waiting times A 38% reduction in patient referrals to overbooked hospitals, resulting from installing a pop-up prompt in the GP referral system.

Public finances A 37% rise in tax declaration rates following text-message reminders to 750,000 businesses in Mexico. This built on early work in the UK, where reminders about self-assessment brought forward £200m in tax revenue in a year.


Daniel Kahneman describes two distinct systems for processing information as to why people sometimes act against their own self-interest. His work preceded [4] and was a foundation of that more popular work

System 1 is fast, automatic, and highly susceptible to environmental influences [3]  System 1’ is automatic, unconscious, uncontrolled, heuristic, fast and cognitively parsimonious. [6]   Many characterise a nudge as belonging here, as encouraging such behaviour.

System 2 processing is slow, reflective, and takes into account explicit goals and intentions. [3] System 2 is reflective, conscious, controlled, analytic, slow and cognitively demanding. [6] I say a noticed nudge belongs in this category.


The UK government has had its own dedicated ‘Nudge Unit’ dedicated to encouraging people to make better social choices. [5] This BIT, the Behavioural Intelligence Team, went public (2014) to an extent, maintaining offices in London and Manchester and five cities abroad. It is, curiously enough, owned by the Cabinet Office, the innovation foundation Nesta and its employees. Inserted text box illustrates what might be called nudges.

Look up the Speed Camera Lottery,” which uses the speeding cameras at intersections to reward those who obey the speed limit with the fees paid by those who violated it. [9]    Idea from USA, tested in Stockholm.


The idea of a nudge could be turned to good effect at a personal level: what is it that is obstructing you doing something? So remove those obstructions—indeed, remove just one and then see if that makes a difference to making a start. The principal obstruction is probably emotional; this is certainly true if you're going to feel stupid at the start (such as learning a skill). From the other end of that, what could you do to make the task easier to start (or do or finish)? The whole probably breaks down into smaller achievable pieces and for many that is sufficient to remove the apparent block to progress. Personally, I group such things under self-honesty. 

DJS 20200522

top pic from [9]. You are welcome to disagree with this idea.

[1]   https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2020/may/20/nudge-theory-brexit-divide-lockdown-coronavirus

[2]   https://docs.cdn.yougov.com/oygox62yaw/YouGov%20Covid%20Lockdown%20Results%20May%202020.pdf

[3]   https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Nudge_theory

[4] https://www.theguardian.com/books/2009/apr/12/nudge-book-review  review of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness is a book written by University of Chicago economist Richard H. Thaler and Harvard Law School Professor Cass R. Sunstein, first published in 2008.

[5] https://www.enginess.io/insights/5-examples-of-nudge

[6] https://jme.bmj.com/content/39/8/487  Includes good examples of nudges. It argues that influences triggering cognitive processes that bypass deliberative capacities may preserve freedom of choice in a morally robust enough sense, centred on the issue of noncontrol. Pretty abstract stuff; not a skim read.

[7]    https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/nov/10/nudge-unit-pushed-way-private-sector-behavioural-insights-team

[8]    https://www.bi.team/about-us/   Fascinating content, well worth a browse.

[9] https://medium.com/swlh/the-7-most-creative-examples-of-habit-changing-nudges-7873ca1fff4a


Ideas just with a staircase.

Staircase at the Utah Valley Univeristy (UVU) campus. They also created graphic lanes for walking, running, and texting. The staircase went viral within weeks, appearing on time.comcnn.comBusiness Insider, and more. [9]

Below: yes! 3/4 lap as part of a Hash; repeated laps with the running club. I love it. And the piano stairs in Stockholm too.



Do I really want to be able to speak another language? Honestly, I'm really not at all bothered; there are very small gains to be had, none of which justify even a week of effort. Do I want to play a stringed instrument? Same answer. Do I want to be able to draw? Almost enough to bother, but not quite—I have no use for more pictures and what I like is not at all what others like so I perceive no gain to be had. But what I feel doesn't apply to anyone else.




Email: David@Scoins.net      © David Scoins 2018