Nudge a few thoughts on what we’ve learned

Nudge (or its academic title Behavioural Insights) is awesome. I love it. Its arguably under tested evidentially.

There are some amazing examples of nudges and simple discrete behaviours, its tricker in complex systems.

We shouldn’t ignore it. we should embrace it.

It may or may not be a panacea. Probably not a panacea but that’s not reason to simply ignore it.

al that said I’m still a fan.

I updated this following a great session delivered by Andy Hollingsworth


Despite my enthusiasm, it’s tempered by the key lines of critique of this and similar techniques focused on methods to change individual behaviour. People have written acres on critique of nudge – see here for this 37 page mammoth.

My simpleton lines of critique are

  • Takes focus away from upstream solutions
  • Upstream is usually more “efficient” – take eg of food – counselling individuals to eat more carrots one person at a time vs addressing marketing of junk to kids etc. latter wins hands down.
  • Gives people “permission” to think downstream when solutions best focused upstream
  • If policy maker / decision maker bandwidth is limited then shiny “nudge” solutions may appear more “attractive” and “easy”, especially if upstream may involve more conflict / upsetting vested interests
  • Opportunity cost of the above. Gain forgone if we focus our energy on downstream stuff at cost of upstream stuff – esp if resource limited and above points in pla

The nudge advocates tend to be a bit imperialistic and call everyting that is about “changing things” nudge…….

Simple v complex

Nudging is beautiful for “simple things”…. And linear stuff. It doesn’t seem to be as useful a tool where there is a heap of complexity. It can be a tool for a simple thing set within the context of a heap of complexity.

But it’s not really a thing for a whole heap of complexity….

For me its not an either or it’s a both, and I wouldn’t not deploy knowledge on a principle….. but I wouldn’t take eye off main prize which is almost unerringly upstream. Ive yet to find anyone that has a coherent argument of “we should ignore upstream determinants of bad outcome x and ONLY do downstream etc”

In my view Nudging is beautiful for “simple things”…. And linear stuff. It doesn’t seem to be as useful a tool where there is a heap of complexity. It can be a tool for a simple thing set within the context of a heap of complexity. But it’s not really a thing for a whole heap of complexity…..

The nudge advocates tend to be a bit imperialistic and call everyting that is about “changing things” nudge…….

Anyway – onto business.

Why it’s important

Changing behaviour is complex

Kahneman – system 1 & system 2 thinking. Help people move from thought to automatic. Skills, experience. moving from system 1 default to 2 might also be beneficial, if I think hard about it I might act differently.

People don’t behave as they say they do – mis remember, want to give socially acceptable survey answer – give people practical examples and insight

Gap between what we mean to do and what we actually do – focus on the conversion point, move from intention to action.

Biases and cognitive issues that subtly affect the way we think and act

How BI might be applied to day to day problems

Changing behaviour is a legitimate role of govt. for example Recycling, challenging stereotypes, pay attention in school, tackling service delivery problems, public service reform, devolution

Behavioural insight

Pulls together a range of disciplines to explain human behaviour and how best to influence it

Some theory – that might be applied to a problem

1) what I learned from @andyholls

BI unit mostly use the EAST framework.

Easy, timely, attractive, social

Other frameworks are available for example MINDSPACE


We often make things surprisingly difficult. Small irritations or problems in processes make us give up on the action. We are inert, if we can avoid change we will

  • Use defaults – energy supplier. Pensions auto enrolment – can achieve far more than £10bn of tax incentives, opt out vs opt in. Organ donation.
  • Simplify messages – the curse of knowledge…. I know more about and have deeper insight than the recipient of the message. We overly complicate the letter. Be clear about what you want people to do. Average reading age = 7. MS word has reading age tool built in.
  • Reduce friction costs – letter -> webpage -> form, compared to letter -> form. 4% incremental improvement in the desired action for no cost at all. Amazon 1 click ordering is good example.


You’re competing with commercial advertisers who fill our space.

You need to grab attention in this space for what you need people to do.

  • Attract attention – I was in your shoes, messenger credibility, sent at appropriate moment. Use images to grab attention – good example, with comparison. The green deal letter – inefficient v efficient.
  • Personalise
  • Rewards and incentives
  • Link to values


  • Messenger effectsPersonal touch to communications, I was like you, amplify through social networks
  • Network nudges – Voting behaviour – door knocking increases voting, message transfers through the household through the network
  • Social commitments – Commitment device – making public commitment, with a costly to you cost of not meeting my commitment
  • Social normstelling people what the social norm is is massively effective in influencing behaviour. 9 out of 10 people………convey a positive social norm, rather than a negative one (as that may give impression that the bad thing is the norm, and thus further normalises bad). College students drink less when you tell them the norm.


  • Prompt at decision point -Years ending in 9 are over represented – “the big date is looming, make big change“. Your reminder has got to be proximal to the decision that needed
  • Benefits now and cost later
  • Assist planningSchool texting parent re homework has significant impact, equivalent of months of tutoring. And no detrimental equity impact. Parent gets more control and knowledge of what’s going on – lock PlayStation away, getting to bed in time etc. Work with FE colleges to improve attendance and literacy. Use existing infrastructure (txt system) to support. Study supporter textUpcoming dates & deadlines. Tap into social networks – mobile contact with mates / peers. Useful websites.Academic resources . What the college is up to. 5% improvement in achievement

Once you’ve identified the issue / target behaviours you’d like to address

Bottom up approach

  • Take specific projects and work up
  • Go experience it from the perspective of the user, what are the problems from their perspective, how can small changes from user perspective help solve my problem
  • Start somewhere….. get people to write something down…….then put it into a framework
  • Conversion points, aggregation of marginal gains
  • Use of different formats on web based processes or high volume communications to test what feels or can be objectively tested as the best way.

Use the TEST framework

  • Target – often hard to be really clear about what the target is. Be SMART etc.
  • Explore
  • Solution
  • Trial

2) Nudging: A Very Short Guide. Cass R. Sunstein

Amazing short reference

Key bits

· reference peers, everyone is doing it. For me the key learning = we do what the person next to us is doing.

Eg- Everyone is doing it / not doing it (see here for neat eg)

· emphasise losses, more likely to lead to change in some contexts if you emphasis what will be lost rather than gained.

· changing the defaults rules and options– opt out vs opt in. automatic enrolment in programs,

· social norms – (emphasizing what most people do, 9/10 people do xxxx, most people intend to …….)

· simplify – message, programme. Does anyone REALLY understand the CMO guideline on drinking. Simplify it. ditto the exercise message – 150 mins of MET5 or more exercise vs “move more than you do now”.

· increase ease and convenience – make healthier options more visible (eyeline) and cheaper. Make less healthy stuff out of eyeline and a bit more expensive.

· disclosure – the cost of xxxx is yyyy… did you know this. We pay £xxxx for prescribed paracetomol, this is the equivalent of xxxxx GPs or yyyy district nurses. The environmental clean up costs associated with litter is…. This is the equivalent of closing 4 day centres. Examples people engage with.

· warnings – graphic or otherwise

· address pre committment phases – move people towards actual change – get people to commit to a certain course of action

· elicit implementation intentions (do you plan to…..) People are more likely to engage in activity if someone elicits their implementation intentions.

· inform people of nature and consequences of own past choices. Eg the “midata project”. institutions often have a great deal of information about people’s own past choices. individuals often lack that information at the point of a decision. If people obtain it, their behaviour can shift,

· reminders – bill payment, upcoming appointment etc. well proven in some areas now. See the ace stuff re outpatient appointments, reminders combined with the cost of appointment. Halpern. Plos Medicine 2015

3) report from The White House Office of Science and Technology

Stunning paper. Worth a read of all of it. White House advice to govt agencies. Here’s my gutting of the key bits

four principal areas of interest and application

a. Access to Programs

Central insight: Small barriers to program access can have large impacts on participation and outcomes


  • Consider streamlining processes for enrolling in programs, such as by simplifying forms or making use of available administrative data
  • Consider automatically enrolling eligible individuals
  • Consider the impact of enrollment or application periods on program participation
  • Consider revisiting program-eligibility criteria in cases where the benefits to targeting efficiency may be outweighed by the costs to program access and outcomes

b. Information provision

Central insight: How individuals understand and respond to information depends on its presentation


  • Agencies should present information in a manner that is meaningful to the intended audience and that effectively promotes the intended use of that information
  • Consider the salience of the information provided -The salience of information—how readily it commands attentioncan affect how individuals interpret and act on the content
  • Consider the framing of the information provided – consider how alternative ways of presenting the same information can affect how individuals understand and act on it.

c. Choices within programs

Central insight: Complex or difficult choices in programs can lead individuals to choose inconsistently


  • Agencies should improve how choices are offered in programs
  • Where complex choices are presented in programs, consider efforts to assist individuals with making those choices
  • Review opportunities to use default settings or require active choices to assist individuals – Agencies should review how default choices are set within programs.
  • Where programs offer many options, or options that differ in many ways, consider efforts to reduce the number and dimensionality of choices – It should not be assumed that adding large numbers of program options, or allowing choices to vary along many dimensions, will necessarily lead to better outcomes for individuals
  • Where programs entail implicit choices, consider efforts to assist individuals with those decisions

d. Incentive design

Central insight: How individuals respond to financial incentives depends on the framing and structure of those incentives; individuals also respond to nonfinancial incentives


  • Agencies should consider efforts to enhance the effectiveness of program incentives
  • When utilizing financial incentives, consider the salience of the incentive
  • Consider the timing of incentives – Immediate incentives are likely to be more effective than delayed incentives
  • Consider the reference points against which individuals may evaluate incentives when structuring and framing incentives – loss or gain psychology. We will go to great lengths to avert a loss. .individuals evaluate incentives relative to a reference point, and even very small incentives can have a large impact on behavior. Individuals may be more likely to respond to an incentive that is framed as a loss rather than as a gain, even when the two incentives are the same monetary amount.
  • Consider the use of nonfinancial incentives – in many contexts, individuals are motivated by social comparisons, such as learning about the behavior of their peers
  • Consider the relative efficiency of financial and nonfinancial incentives – Often, achieving a policy goal through the use of incentives entails paying individuals directly for engaging in a particular behavior, such as installing energy-efficient technologies in the home

Putting it into Practice and practical examples


Behavioural Insights Team – annual report for 15/16

Many examples of success, AND (importantly) non success across many areas

Full of bright ideas in multiple domains:

· Health and Wellbeing

· Education and Skills

· Home Affairs

· Energy, Sustainability and Consumers

· Growth, Employment and Productivity

· Giving and Social Action

· Reducing Fraud, Error and Debt

From the UK and across the world.

And report for 16/17

Results from across our UK team’s work this year include:

• A 20 per cent reduction in speeding in the six months after including a one-side explanation of why and how speeding limits are set in police correspondence to drivers caught speeding.

• A 34 per cent increase in acceptances by students from under-represented schools to top universities following a letter from a current top-tier university student from a similar background.

• A ten fold increase in the proportion of savers visiting the Pension Wise website when sent a one-side ‘Pension Passport’ rather than the standard pension ‘wake-up’ pack.

• An 8% reduction in annual household gas consumption following installation of smart heating controls. This significantly outperforms loft and cavity-wall insulation pound-for-pound, and could cut millions from consumers’ energy bills.

• A 38 per cent reduction in patient referrals to over-booked hospitals, resulting from a pop-up prompt in the GP referral system. The intervention is now being scaled across the NHS.

• A 25 per cent increase in ‘social trust’ among young people with low levels of social trust, measured four weeks after the introduction of a ten-minute ice-breaker discussion about the similarities between participants at the beginning of National Citizen Service.

• A 28 per cent increase in comprehension of privacy notices required for a back-to-work programme, following a rewrite which also dramatically reduced their length.

• Successful demonstration of a feedback platform for government purchasing, which we believe will promote improved purchasing and the more rapid growth of high-performing small and medium-sized enterprises.

5). The amazing database of stuff here from Stirling. Find Courtesy @jjtm5


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