When push comes to ‘nudge’: how governments can influence the behaviour of citizens

By on 14/06/2022 | Updated on 21/06/2022
Photo by Andres Ayrton via Pexels

The concept of ‘nudge’, whereby citizens can be influenced to make good choices, remains an important tool for governments as the COVID pandemic showed. Here, strategic communications and behaviour change specialist James Humphreys shares his advice for policymakers on making change through small, targeted interventions

In 2008, just as the financial crash was tipping the world into recession, two professors based at the University of Chicago, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, published a book on ‘choice architecture’. This book – Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness – became an unlikely publishing sensation. It also popularised the idea that big global challenges such as energy conservation and obesity can be addressed through small, targeted interventions that those on the receiving end hardly notice.

‘Nudge’ quickly became shorthand for the whole field of behavioural economics. In the Obama White House, the social and behavioural sciences team was soon known as the ‘Nudge Unit’, though its remit went far beyond nudge theory. Nudge was the flavour of the decade in social interventions, championed by governments around the world in ways that showed its potential – and its pitfalls.

‘Choice architecture’ explores how the way in which choices are presented to people influences their decisions. We are all familiar with how, as humans, we tend to do the same things again and again – our route to work, what coffee we buy on the way, and so on – rather than thinking them out afresh every day. It’s easier that way. Similarly, we are reluctant to think we have made a bad choice and we tend to stick to our decisions, even if the evidence starts to point the other way. We talk about patterns, grooves, feeling comfortable or taking the path of least resistance, while psychologists talk about confirmation bias and loss aversion.

The application of this kind of behavioural psychology to the real world goes back decades. Every day, supermarkets use this insight to shape what we buy, such as locating the products they want to push at the end of the aisles, at eye level, or by the checkout. Thaler and Sunstein highlighted the potential of these kinds of low-impact behavioural interventions to achieve outcomes that were good for society or for individuals. If supermarkets could be persuaded, or incentivised, they might place fresh fruit in these prime locations and so increase the amount of fruit that people buy. And this approach can be extended to other locations, such as school canteens. This, in short, is a nudge.

For Thaler and Sunstein, what made a nudge different to other behavioural interventions was that it maximised people’s choice. It was easy for the shopper to pass by the bananas or apples if they wished. There was no penalty, no-one shouting at them or telling them they were bad people. In this, it differed from ‘harder’ intervention, such as removing junk food from a canteen and only offering people fresh fruit, or a social marketing campaign that told parents they were neglecting their children if they didn’t feed them fruit. Though the route was different, the outcome was supposed to be the same – governments shaping citizen behaviour in positive ways.

Nudges depend on psychological insights. For example, a patient who visits the doctor expects some kind of outcome from a consultation, such as a prescription for medicine. But there is growing evidence that alternatives such as group activities, exercise programmes and talking therapies can be more effective – and safer. To avoid patients feeling they have not been taken seriously, these alternatives are now often described as ‘social prescriptions’, and patients leave the consultation room with a piece of paper, just as they would with medication. Result: healthier, happier patients.

This is not really a nudge. But it leads to a good example of one. Like everyone else, doctors repeat the patterns of the past – including prescribing the same medication for the same condition. One way to deal with that inertia is to redesign prescribing pads (or electronic prescribing screens) so that the first page shows the social prescribing options, and doctors have to pass through that to reach the medicines. It’s a subtle nudge to consider the alternatives first.

But that isn’t enough. Doctors will only prescribe alternatives if they believe they are better for their patients – so introducing social prescribing requires a lot of communications, investment in alternative capacity, support for doctors from specialists in social prescribing options, even changing the syllabus for medical training. The nudge on its own would achieve nothing.

Behavioural change is much bigger than occasional nudges, because it requires a joined-up approach across all the intervention tools that governments can employ. There is the framework of laws and systems for enforcing them – courts, police, prisons and so on. There are taxes on activities we wish to see less of, such as smoking, and subsidies for those we favour, such as solar panels. Governments provide public goods – everything from vaccinations to lighthouses to litter bins – so that people will make use of them. And we use communications and persuasion to shape individual and group behaviour.

In one sense, there was nothing new in nudge theory. Policymakers have known for years that if you want people to make pension contributions, or donate organs after their death, they are more likely to do so if they have to opt out rather than opt in. But nudge spoke to the prevailing political philosophy of free markets and small government. It was cheap, which appealed to governments wrestling with the post-2008 economic crisis. It went with the grain of consumerism, by seeking to nudge people towards ‘less bad’ options rather than blocking consumption. It placed responsibility firmly with the citizen to choose wisely, with government helping to make that choice a little easier. It avoided increasingly unpopular measures such as using taxes to discourage behaviours like smoking or buying high-sugar drinks. It is no surprise that nudge was adopted most enthusiastically by right-wing governments (such as in Australia and the UK) or where the political landscape was strongly free-market (the US).

This was the authors’ intention. They set nudge theory within a concept of liberal paternalism: in other words, that governments did have a duty to shape how citizens behaved – so paternalism – but ought to do so in ways that impinged as little as possible on people’s free will and autonomy (so liberal in the classical economics sense, not the sense used in US politics).

This led to a lot of push-back. Those who believed in the power of the state to do good, criticised nudge’s low ambition and marginal impact. Those who believed in the smallest state possible were uncomfortable with any state interventions, including ones that manipulated citizens in ways they did not perceive. Some practitioners in behavioural change, meanwhile, emphasised that nudge was nothing new – though others welcomed Thaler and Sunstein’s success in publicising the subject.

In a way, these debates were overtaken by events. The COVID pandemic was a classic example of where nudge could make a modest contribution, but where public health depended on rules, subsidies, the provision of public goods such as healthcare and vaccines and an awful lot of old-fashioned communication and leadership. Of course, the big government/small state debates continue, but nudge is no longer on the front line.

So where does that leave today’s policymakers who want to make the best use of nudge?

First, nudge is only one tool for shaping the way citizens behave. On its own, a typical nudge intervention might contribute to a policy aim but will not work alone. An effective healthy eating campaign may incorporate nudge, but this will be alongside education in schools, public information campaigns, improved product labelling and even taxes on fats and sugars. Nudge works, but it is not a panacea.

Second, nudge works best when dealing with inertia. It is much less effective when facing a strong force pushing in the other direction. Few people actively hate fruit, so nudges push at an open door. But nudging people to smoke less has to overcome the power of nicotine addiction. Making cigarettes slightly less prominent in supermarkets will hardly make much difference to a 40-a-day smoker.

Third, we have to recognise that nudge has a political dimension; or to put it another way, it is based on a particular view of human nature and the proper place of government. This does not invalidate it: but policymakers need to focus in a practical, evidence-based way on how and where nudge can help, not see it or as morally superior to other interventions.

Finally, back to the book. Nudge is a good read and makes a lot of valuable thinking from behavioural economics more accessible. But do not neglect the role of wider behavioural science – and indeed laws, enforcement, fiscal incentives and all the other tools of the policymaker – if you want your interventions to fly.

About the author
James Humphreys

James is a director of the research and engagement consultancy Woodnewton. He specialises in strategic communications and behaviour change, particularly in health and the environment, though his clients range from John Lewis to GCHQ.

Before co-founding Woodnewton, he was head of corporate communications in the Prime Minister’s Office, responsible for a wide range of policy and communications including digital enablement and employee engagement. His achievements included launching the first cross-government brand and the first mobile app for government.

Prior to that he was a career civil servant in the Department for the Environment, working on regional development, housing and environmental protection. He also spent two years based in Brussels as environment attaché at the UK Representation to the European Union. He wrote a book based on his experience in this role: Negotiating in the European Union: How to Make the Brussels Machine Work for You.

He was a visiting professor of government at City University London from 2005 to 2009 and launched a Masters in Political Communication, Advocacy and Campaigning at Kingston University. He has also served as chair of the IVCA (now EVCOM), the trade association for the visual communications industry, and as a trustee of the Woodland Trust.

Having worked in such very senior and varied roles, he understands the priorities and constraints facing government and public bodies, and his experience means that he can engage effectively with senior decision-makers from all over the world. James speaks at events on a wide range of subjects and he works as a professional trainer on topics such as policy, strategic planning, strategic communications, behaviour, engagement, strategic implementation, impact assessment and evaluation.

Seminars that James presents for Global Government Forum include:
Modifying Behaviour through Policy
The Five Principles of Strategic Communication

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About James Humphreys

James Humphreys worked for five years as the Head of Corporate Communications in the UK Prime Minister’s Office. He delivers training courses for Global Government Forum on The Five Principles of Strategic Communication and Modifying Behaviour through Policy

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