How to get young people to vote

I really like this TEDx talk in the UK by Rick Edwards. Focused on a common challenge that has been widely covered in many countries and regions, he makes some simple recommendations. Best of all, he avoids some of the common and incorrect perceptions spread by the media – e.g. that young people are lazy or apathetic.

And like all good ideas that are effective in changing behaviour, he starts by giving people the benefit of the doubt. Most people after all “want” to change. Most of the time, it’s our job to make the change easier, or as the Heath brothers always say, “shrink the change”.


Top #8 Sunday Reads – #12

Sharing a few bits and pieces from the last week;

1. Great write-up on the so called Ministry of Nudges in the UK via the New York times

At the core of nudging is the belief that people do not always act in their own self-interest. We can be undone by anxiety and swayed by our desire to fit in. We have biases and habits, and we can be lazy: Faced with a choice, we are more likely than not to go with a default option, be that a mobile ringtone or a pension plan.

2. Another reminder via the Economist of the power of emotion in advertising – in part inspired by the thinking of Daniel Kahneman, a champion psychologist.

3. Here’s an elegant way to define the power of behavioural economics – by defining what it’s not – via Ideas42

4. A beautiful film that communicates the message of sustainability – Work Wear, by Patagonia

5. Great series & partnership between W+K and D&AD. Called I wish I’d done that, it features some the best in advertising and design talking about work they wish they’d done. In this example from W+K, founder Dan Wieden shares a wonderful idea focused on shifting cultural attitudes toward climate change.

6. A beautiful and respectful film to help build awareness for the International Day of Persons with Disabilities – “Because who is perfect?”. Created for Pro Infirmis, an organization for the disabled, the idea is original and confronting yet thought provoking.

7. In this lovely idea by the University of Pennsylvania Museum of Archaeology and Anthropology, “touch tours” are being offered for visitors who are blind and visually-impaired.

8. A perhaps my favourite video of the past few weeks. The folks at RSA created a charming and inspiring animation of a talk by Brené Brown in which she describes the difference between empathy and sympathy. Via the always brilliant Brain Pickings

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.

Top 7 Sunday reads – #5

Here’s a few of my favourite bits and pieces from the past week, mostly around the theme of behaviour change and health promotion. I hope they’re helpful. Also, don’t forget to join in the growing community at #behaviourchange and #behaviorchange for a constant source of inspiration and fresh thinking.

1. A great interview on BBC – Radio 4 this past week on Nudging and behavioural economics (including a discussion with Nudge author Richard Thaler). It’s a nice intro to the overall theory as well as an update on various initiatives being launched by the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insight Team. Hat Tip @DivaCreative

2. A handy chart on 8 potential ways of applying Behavioural Economics theory for behaviour change. Rather than a silver bullet, it does start to shift us more toward a direction that goes with the grain of how people think.  And that’s a big step up from older models. Hat tip @mhallsworth and thoughts from Mark Earls here

3. This article via the LA Times focuses on the positive behaviour change impacts that can come from harnessing pride. For anyone (like me) who believes in shrinking the change by focusing where possible on the positive impact of change, rather than the negative, it’s a great reminder. For others, it may provoke some discussion or alternate views – via @aaronsklar

4. Lovely thoughts as always from Russell Davies in Wired. Here he talks about secondary thinking, and how designers are creating tools for stuff that gets half our attention. Also check out his inspired post on the Internet of Things.

5. For pure inspiration and beauty, this is incredible. Sophie Windsor Clive and Liberty Smith were canoeing along the River Shannon in Ireland, when they were treated to a mind-blowing show by a flock of starlings (or murmuration). Talk about right place, right time. Just stunning!

6. It seems appropriate after the above video to post this article in Psychology Today, focused on debunking the myth of human exceptionalism.

Of course we are exceptional in various arenas as are other animals. Perhaps we should replace the notion of human exceptionalism with species exceptionalism, a move that will force us to appreciate other animals for who they are, not who or what we want them to be.

Animals are not only a source of inspiration, but I think their interactions provide us with much to learn when it comes to helping us better understand our own behaviour.


7. And finally, a little something from Lady Gaga. Last year I did a talk at the agency on what she can teach us about branding. And this week, she’s again demonstrated what can come from having a singular point of view and passion, and backing it up. She’s always embraced her fans and helped them celebrate their uniqueness – her “Little Monsters” as she calls them. Her Born This Way Foundation is a further demonstration of this focus – as it works to empower youth and drive change around issues such as bullying and abandonment.  You can read more here.

Tackling the impossible

The Gruen Planet is a great little TV show out of Australia, and part of each episode has ad agencies competing against each other to solve impossible challenges. This week’s challenge, appropriately enough, was to attempt to turn Aussies gamblers against the race that stops a nation – the Melbourne Cup.

Both spots are great – but the 2nd one has real impact as it works hard to widen the context, and overcome our inability to think long-term.

Hat Tip to Servant of Chaos

9 useful readings on behaviour change

The stream of new research and findings on behaviour change continues at a furious rate. From the use of behavioural economics to a greater understanding of social influence, it’s exciting to be a part of behaviour change efforts that seek to go deeper in understanding why we do the things we do.

Although just a small sample, I wanted to share some of my favourite articles, studies and case studies that showcase how these learnings are being applied to specific sectors and industries, including energy conservation, the local food movement and health.

1. This study was put together for the Department of Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, and includes insights on how learnings from behavioural economics can help reduce energy use.

2. Insights on understanding and predicting childhood obesity. A study commissioned by the Advertising Association’s Food Advertising Unit.

3. A great exchange between Rory Sutherland, Tim Duffy and Dr Richard Wright during a House of Lords Enquiry on Behaviour change.

4. A well put together report that includes practical, real world examples that demonstrates how potentially new thinking and tools for behaviour change can be put in the hands of communities, whether farmers’ markets, food co-ops and food enterprises etc.

5. From the Cabinet Office (UK) and the Institute for Government, this report includes some nice examples of behavioural theory in action.

6. From the Cabinet office again, more focused examples of effective behaviour change in the health category

7. This essay by Paul Ormerod (N-Squared, Public Policy and the Power of Networks) highlights that effective policy focused on behaviour change needs to not only draw from behavioural economics, but also from an understanding of how our social networks influence our choices.

My own experience in behaviour change has helped me understand that social forces that draw us toward or away from certain actions cannot be ignored in any behaviour change initiative. They help us see not only what we’re up against, but how we can use these powers to influence positive behaviour. For example, the use of social proof (social norms) in this  recent anti-smoking campaign.

8. In this interview, Rory Sutherland summarizes how Behavioural Economics can help reinvigorate the advertising business

9. This essay from Wired demonstrates why our perception of the “hot hand” in sport is likely a fallacy – with much of it to do with Confirmation Bias.