In defence of Nudging

Two articles today got me both inspired and frustrated.

The first is a well written, thought-provoking and balanced paper from the RSA titled Transforming behaviour change: Beyond Nudge and Neuromania. It provides greater context around the RSA’s Social Brain project, with much of it focused on the importance of “Reflexivity”

Sociologists identified reflexivity – our capacity to reflect on the conditions of our action, and thereby shape our own lives and identities – as a key component of twentieth century selfhood. The RSA suggests that ‘Neurological reflexivity’ – the capacity to reflect upon and directly to shape our mental processes – may be a key feature of the twenty first – Matthew Taylor

The paper suggests that the RSA want to take a bold step to help make the intricacies of decision-making more transparent – to provide what they term “transformational learning” to help people better understand the various forces that cause us to make the decisions we do. Once we have this knowledge, they argue, we are in a stronger position to make better decisions.

While this seems a noble approach, it rises up like Everest to me. Taking on the very essence of our nature as social animals seems like a herculean task, and I question whether it can be applied at scale and to the broader population.

What I did really appreciate was their much needed caution against Neuroscience, warning against what they term “Neuromania”, and its focus on separating the brain from its inevitable social context – cultural influences, social norms, and other learnings.

However, it was in its criticisms of nudging that I found it less effective. Their main point here is that nudging is not transformative.

Nudge changes the environment in such a way that people change their behaviour, but it doesn’t change people at any deeper level in terms of attitudes, values, motivations etc.

My counter to this is that sometimes it doesn’t need to. Nudging can shrink the change, by making the desired behaviour easy and simple to choose. In these cases, nudging can move people into a new behaviour without necessarily changing attitudes or values. Since people don’t like their beliefs or attitudes to be inconsistent with their actions, they will shift their values and attitudes to fall into line with their new behaviour. I’ve referenced Jon Howard’s excellent presentation on this very subject in an earlier post here. It’s worth checking out.

The second article that I referenced earlier was this one published via Slate (a great magazine with wonderful podcasts by the way). However, this article discussed some of the more common and weaker arguments against nudging of late.

It suggests that benevolent meddling won’t help us make good decisions. But it misses the point. Every day we’re meddled with and nudged in our decisions whether we like it or not. While it’s not the panacea, choice architecture does play a role in our behaviour. From the way products are arranged in a supermarket, to prompts of “want fries with that”, to upgrading to bigger TV’s, or simply copying what those around us do, we’re constantly influenced, nudged and bumped by the things around us. So rather than meddling with our choices, nudging is one tool that helps us fight back and even the odds.

While I’m not suggesting nudge theory will single-handedly solve major behaviour change issues like the obesity crisis, without considering our environment as part of the solution, we’re unlikely to succeed either. Nudging, behavioural economics, the power of the herd can all work together to help people lead healthier lives.

Beyond the Nudging of Thaler and Sunstein, I also find the more general term of nudging useful as it suggests a more natural way of helping people move toward healthier behaviour by going with the flow of human nature. Nudging can help us appreciate that in many cases, the majority of people have the information they need, and already understand they should exercise more and eat better. And in the case of smoking, numerous studies tell us people who smoke want to quit. So it’s important we’re worrying about the right things.

Anything that helps us take that first step toward new and healthier habits is a good thing in my view.

Take this recent example from Massive Health called The Eatery. With over 200,000 photos of food taken in just 1 week, they are making change fun, interesting and social.

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3 thoughts on “In defence of Nudging

  1. The problem with nudging is nudging itself. Triggering behaviours is the ‘easy’ part of behavioural change whether at individual, group or macro-group level. The ‘hard problem’, as philosophers may put it, are (1) sustainability and (2) scale up [They are different by the way] Nudge has tremendous value beyond the sometimes rather superficial headlines of what the UK Behavioural Insight Unit may or may not do, or how many trips Mr Richard Richard Thaler makes to 10 Downing Street in a year. The use of behavioural insights to inform policy must be welcome. The weakness of the approach is that there seems to be low energy dedicated to what happens after the nudgers nudge; how behaviours (will) travel through social networks and how to convert nudge into a true social (positive) movement. Without scale up and social movement, nudge is quite irrelevant. Our work on Viral Change™ addresses those post-nudge issues. Viral Change™ is large scale behavioural and cultural change. See http://www.viralchange.com and http://www.homoimitans.com

  2. Thanks Leandro for the comments. I agree nudging or addressing environmental triggers might be easy, but I’m still amazed how often it’s overlooked as one part of comprehensive behaviour change initiatives. And yes, nudging shouldn’t replace other efforts, especially the incredible power of the social to drive long-term change.

  3. Pingback: Top 16 Sunday reads – #10 | age of change

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