A nudge from Government

One of the responsibilities of the UK government is to protect the health and wellbeing of its citizens. Historically, the approach to this has either been through changes to the law (wearing a seat belt), or through communicating information (eating 5-a-day). The former is greatly effective where it can feasibly be employed, but tends to create backlash against the “nanny state”. The latter has time and again proven to be extremely ineffective.

2010 saw a shift in this governmental approach to public health communications following the launch of the book Nudge in 2008, which popularised the practice of behavioural economics. Behavioural economics was born out of a desire to understand why people so often choose to behave in ways that make little rational sense. We smoke, we gamble, we don’t exercise enough; all behaviours which are at odds with our best interests.

What we now know is that the human brain is made of two systems; System One and System Two. System One is responsible for the thousands of decisions we make every day without conscious thought; it operates through instincts, emotions, and habits. It uses shortcuts (known as “heuristics”) to take care of as much as possible in order to leave free processing space in our System Two, which is slower and inefficient. System Two is engaged when we have a problem to solve, or a decision to make. We avoid doing this as it is effortful and draining, and we have evolved to preserve our energy.

The government saw huge potential in adopting this way of thinking, and created an in-house Nudge Unit back in 2010. One of the first examples of the Nudge Unit’s influence was the renewed Fire Kills brand and campaign, which encouraged the public to check their smoke alarm twice a year when we change the clocks. By tying a new behaviour in to something that we habitually do twice a year anyway, you far increase the chances of it being carried out, whilst also creating a new “norm” — a behaviour everyone does without thinking. Giving a clear, direct action in addition to the usual information makes it a far more effective piece of communication.

Changing consumer behaviour

It didn’t take long for the commercial sector to cotton on to the profit gains that could be made through employing similar nudge techniques (it’s now commonplace to see the likes of “only X number left” littered across websites, tapping in to the scarcity heuristic). But there’s another way the commercial sector could use behavioural economics – for good. There is increasing pressure for organisations to embed social purpose within their business model, and those that do are rewarded profitably. Unilever are an excellent example. Through embedding purpose at the heart of their business model, they aim to double their business, whilst increasing their positive social impact and reducing their environmental impact. This is based not only on internal change, but also consumer behaviour change. A notable example is the Lifebuoy ‘Help a child reach 5’ campaign, which seeks to address the issue of over 2 million children under the age of 5 dying each year from infections by  teaching and promoting good handwashing habits across Asia, Africa and Latin America.

Charities as behaviour changers?  

There is a clear role here for charities to take up the reins, particularly within the remit of health. British Liver Trust have already taken a bold step in this direction with the creation of Spruce, an app which embeds nudges to create healthier drinking habits.

Yes, of course, charities can use nudges to increase donations, improve sponsorship returns and reduce volunteer drop outs. But I look forward to charities — like Diabetes UK, British Heart Foundation and Cancer Research — seizing the opportunity to form preventative strategies that go beyond influencing policy and communicating information, and instead aim to change behaviour for the better.