[CAREER NEWS] The NUDGE or how to play the brain at its own game!

Oct 05, 2020

Have you ever wondered what influences your choices? When you're operating on “autopilot” and you're short on time, do you think all your decisions are rational and the right ones?
Although traditional economics tends to think that every person makes informed, rational decisions in their best interests, this is not necessarily the case!

Let’s have a little think about it…

Behavioural sciences run counter to traditional economics, and have shown that our brains are influenced by unconscious factors including our emotions, social pressure, mental distortions etc. These factors, called cognitive biases, are numerous and mean the way we process information and make decisions can be irrational. Indeed, sometimes (or even often), we make decisions that are not in our own interest and the choice of an alternative option would, in the end, be much more profitable...

An awareness campaign on the dangers of sugar is not enough to make us stop eating sweets and biscuits or drinking fizzy drinks! Being aware of the virtues of a behaviour is unfortunately not enough to make us adopt it!

To get round these cognitive biases, behavioural science has developed techniques to offer our brains a choice of options so we make decisions more in line with our interests. This is precisely where the Nudge theory comes into its own and has real added value!

What is the Nudge theory?

The Nudge Theory was originally developed by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their 2008 book: Nudge - Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, And Happiness. The two authors wanted to apply knowledge and techniques from behavioural economics to specific social issues. In 2017, Richard Thaler was even awarded the Nobel Prize for economics for his work on the psychological and social mechanisms which influence the decisions of consumers or investors.

Inspired by behavioural sciences, a Nudge is a mechanism that relies on a gentle incentive to influence decision-making towards accomplishing a particular task while respecting individual and/or collective freedoms.

The image to illustrate this concept (borrowed from the cover of the authors’ book) is of an elephant giving a gentle push with its trunk to its baby to set it back on the right track.

Nudge theory starts from the premise that human beings are, by nature, irrational.

The Nudge involves no coercion or sanction and is based on three main ethical principles described in the book:
-    the Nudge should be transparent and never misleading
-    the Nudge should be easily opted out of 
-    there should be good reason to believe that the behaviour being encouraged will improve the welfare of those being Nudged

A few examples of the Nudge:

Researchers at the University of Warwick in England took Nudge Theory into a supermarket on a students campus. By changing the positioning of the fruit and vegetables, and with no associated advertising message or communication signalling the change, or even a campaign to encourage a healthier diet, they observed a change in the purchasing behaviour of students. By making fruit and vegetables more accessible and more visible, they saw an increase in the quantity of fruit and vegetables purchased and therefore consumed by students (+ 15%).

Do you remember the experiment in Stockholm in 2011 when a musical staircase was installed which looked like piano keys? It was a Nudge! The fun aspect of the experiment appealed to users, who without realising it were gently encouraged to use the stairs rather than the escalators. They were directly influenced by their surroundings and used the stairs much more readily than before.

In an everyday example, the rough strip on the side of the motorway which emits a sound and vibration when a vehicle is driven over it, is a Nudge intended to attract the attention of the driver when his vehicle unexpectedly deviates from its normal trajectory.

The default double-sided printing option programmed into your printer at work is also a Nudge that offers a default choice - it gradually changes your behaviour with the aim of saving paper.

To sum up, by subtly orienting your choices, Nudges bypass cognitive biases and open a world of better possibilities. They combine the coherence of an incentive to make decisions that are more in line with individual and collective interests with the creativity of an "architecture of choice" (as the authors call it) which is unique and fun.

What next?

Become an expert in the art of subtle persuasion: be creative, make suggestions, don’t impose things and leave everyone free to decide ... This will increase your chances of influencing everyone's behaviour in the right direction, including your own!
Now you know how to play the brain at its own game to move your projects forward ... So go for it!

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