Approximate reading time: 3.1 minutes

Anyone in the field of behavioural change cannot but be fascinated by the new “nudge unit” being set up by the Cabinet Office. It aims to use behavioural economics [PDF] to persuade citizens to behave differently.

As practitioners at the coal-face of behavioural change, trying to make a difference on a daily basis to people in work, we welcome ‘nudge-theory’.

In some ways nudge theory is nothing new, it is essentially about putting psychological insights to work, using them to identify incentives for behavioural change, rather than punishments or penalties.

Economists at last seem to be taking seriously long-standing psychological insights and issues to do with emotion, feelings and experience-based techniques. This is in stark contrast to experimental economists who tend to be focused on pure theory, abstract modelling and an obsession with metrics.

In contrast, behavioural economists are more eclectic. They draw their insights from a wide variety of sources, particular psychology. That behavioural economics now offers new strategies for influencing human behaviour is both interesting and slightly worrying.

The assumptions behind this form of affecting human behaviour for example are often unclear.

For example, remember that old joke about how many psychotherapists does it take to change a light-bulb? First the light-bulb must want to change.  

Nudging policies are practical applications of behavioural theory aimed at persuading people to develop the desire to change, but this is only one part of the equation.

“For any behavioural change to work, people need help in behaving differently,” argues my fellow director Michael Maynard of Maynard Leigh Associate. “Skill development is therefore a potentially missing link.  The ‘will’ and ‘skill’ mix is how change will be achieved.”

He goes on to ask whether “the government is as committed to investing in learning and education as they are to behavioural economic policies? People need places to practise new behaviours and develop new skills.”

Take for example a new “nudge” to persuade people that there is personal benefit in investing in fitness and reducing weight.

Whatever the behavioural incentive offered by the nudge unit, it is unlikely to work unless people can also obtain help in assessing their fitness and gain access to facilities to start to practice new ways of exercising and dealing with diet issues.

The idea behind the nudge concept is that governments can deliberately design environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves and society. Much the same applies to any company. In theory you can nudge employees into seeing that it makes sense to behave in ways that benefit themselves and the organisation.

However, you also need a culture responsive to their needs and this may not exist. For example, how successful would a nudge policy be in relation to getting BA cabin staff to see that it is in their interests to do what the airline wants them to do in relation to lower pay and benefits?

Underpinning the whole nudge concept is a view about how people make decisions. Old style experimental economics assumes people are highly rational and therefore always end up doing what is best for them. Reality turns out to be rather different.

Since people do not always make rational or consistent decisions, the idea behind nudge and behavioural economics is that with the right strategy you can help them make better choices—even life style and health choices.

Bringing psychological approaches to human judgement and decision making is nothing new to those of us working in the field of behavioural change. That economists are coming round to recognising that many of the approaches developed by for example Organisational Development specialists is more of a relief than a celebration.

Another underpinning of the nudge concept is what has been called “light paternalism”. This is where you in your wisdom decide to help people make better choices – choices that better serve the chooser’s interests – without restricting autonomy or freedom of choice.

In many situations you cannot easily avoid some “light paternalism”. A good example is the debate within Maynard Leigh Associates about the desirability or otherwise of only offering healthy food to participant attending events at our venue.

For those of us in the company keen to promote healthy living, the choice seemed obvious. We should only offer food regarded as health giving, hence no sticky buns, sweets, or cholesterol rich food items.

Yet because this light paternalism was not backed up with opportunities for people to gain new skills and awareness about healthy living, the light paternalism rather hit a wall.

Participants in effect “demanded” unhealthy food! So we ended up merely offering choices. You can choose the nuts and raisins or the buns!