Nudge nudge, do you follow me?

Call me a stereotype of the scientist buried in his own irrelevant little world, but it occurred to me that I know far more about how to manipulate the behaviour of transformed cell lines than that of people. The War On The Motorist™ was, of course, part of the great evil Labour project to change some of our more anti-social and self-destructive behaviours. So I thought I should probably find out about how these government-led behavioural change projects work.

There are, of course, all sorts of different ways that governments can try to reduce destructive behaviour, from outlawing it to asking nicely, via making the bad options harder and making the good options easier:

(This table, incidentally, neatly describes where the chaps at Cycle Chat slipped up when claiming that the rise in domestic recycling rates demonstrates that we can achieve mass cycling without cycling facilities: mass domestic recycling required a change in the physical environment — kerbside recycling boxes — exactly equivalent to the changes to the physical environment that are required before we can expect most people to cycle.)

The current government has an ideological bias against some of these varieties of behavioural change, and in favour of others.* Regulation and taxation is, of course, off the agenda. Rather, the government says it wants to influence behaviour by making it easier for us to make the right choices. It will do this, it claims, without making the bad choices impossible or even more expensive, and without even requiring our conscious deliberation. In the fashionable pop-economics terminology, it’s going to “nudge” us in the right direction.

The pop-economics writers have some favourite examples of “nudges”. Changing the environment by putting the fruit bowl in plain view and easy reach, without banning the junk food option. Or reducing laundry loads by changing the hotel bathroom signs from “hang your towel on the rack if you are going to reuse it” to “most guests hang their towels up and reuse them”. The environment or the information nudges people into making the right choice, without actually taking choice from them.

It all sounds very nice, but I wonder what the evidence says about the government’s approach? Does it really work? Are they doing it right? And what does it mean for transport and The War On The Motorist?

Luckily, the House of Lords Sci & Tech select committee are ahead of me. I like select committees. So far as I can tell, their job is to closely and carefully scrutinise what the government is doing (or failing to do), point out when the evidence indicates that they’re messing things up, and then to be completely ignored by government, media, and the unfortunate oblivious electorate. The HoL Sci & Tech committee produced a report a couple of weeks ago looking at the present government’s approach to behaviour change programmes, and in particular, the extent to which they were informed by the evidence of what works and what is worthwhile. I’ve been scrolling through it and will probably dump a load of thoughts on the blog this week.

My initial concern was that, though it speaks of nudges and wanting to avoid limiting choice through regulation, it is not regulation that the government is really trying to avoid: it is spending money on doing a job properly. We’ll see if I’m at all reassured by the time I’ve finished digesting it and posting about it…

* Of course, the far end of the libertorian wing will object to any and all government-led behavioural change, but I will assume for now that we all understand why we need it, and why we need it done properly

7 thoughts on “Nudge nudge, do you follow me?”

  1. The nudge concept, like the idea of Big Society, has been co-opted by government, stripped of context and meaning and left dangling in the wind as a wholly inadequate solution to social and environmental ills. I work for a social marketing agency responsible for a number of “nudge” campaigns, and the ones that really work (and some do, with some decent evaluation and data as proof) tend to be the ones that take a long term view and look beyond the nice and easy marketing tactics and consider and implement what the industry calls “service change”. This requires time, effort, commitment and generally quite a bit of lolly, all factors that seem to be blissfully absent from the few briefs we are getting from government at the moment. Campaigns where the only nudge is through marketing interventions act in a wonderful closed loop – “nudge” through a promotional campaign, count the number of people attending an event / visiting a website / expressing a desire to change in a survey, count the outputs, slap some backs and get back to running services in exactly the same way as previously. All mouth and no trousers then, with very little real difference made to changing behaviour. It’s all very frustrating, all the more so when you get involved with a campaign which doesn’t have one hand tied behind its back and can consider all the different options. These are rare beasts unfortunately, and probably likely to get even rarer.

  2. Damn – I was going to blog about this!

    Points if you manage not to actually use the word “nudge”. I think the table you posted shows that it has so many different meanings that it’s basically useless.

    Plus you get a bunch of ideological zealots who are immediately for/against a “nudge”, regardless of whether this means marketing or changes to physical environment.

  3. At least one of the so-called “pop economists” (Brian Wansink, _Mindless Easting_) studies this stuff pretty carefully, though he did right an accessible book about it. (He went to grad school with my wife, he has fun with his work, but their school was big on statistical rigor and experiment design).

  4. Recent governments have had no problem with ever more regulation of our lives, especially the sinister New Labour administration.

    We are now subject to many more laws, rules, regulations and bureaucracy from our government now then we ever have been.

    Whatever has caused the lack of more effective government measures to get more people onto bikes and out of cars we can be sure it isn’t because our lords and masters don’t want to tell us what to do.

    It’s probably more to do with th fact that our government doesn’t want to antagonise motorists too much as they pay lots of tax on petrol and other motoring related expenses, and they all have votes.

  5. @ed – here in the US, the problem is more that people seem to have forgotten the purpose of government. Locally, people complain about traffic in our town, both cut-through and local. People complain about a lack of parking, and/or its expense, here, and in Cambridge (MA). Plenty of us are well overweight and out of shape (less so in Massachusetts than much of the rest of the country, but still plenty). What we have is a public commons (the roads) that has been grazed to dirt by sheep.

    The difficulty here is that people take the government actions to discourage “sheep-grazing” as a personal insult (YOU are fat, YOU are the problem) rather than appreciating the nature of the problem; automobile overuse, by almost everyone. And people vote against that. Of course, there’s representatives of the oil, road construction, and auto industries, all well-paid to tell us that we should take such measures personally, and vote out any bastard who attempts to implement them.

    We’ve also got an innumerate fear-of-change. Locally, we wish to build a bike path on a stretch of land behind a bunch of houses. The abutters fear “crime”, and will cease on any “bike path crime” hits from Google as all the evidence anyone should need. Online crime reports indicate that there is already more crime on that street than on equivalent stretches of bike paths in the area. But since the status quo is by definition good, it naturally follows that the bike path must be worse, never mind the numbers.

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