Nudging people to do what they want to do


Not all of us in the Adam Smith Institute agree on everything all the time.  Life would be duller if we did.  One topic that divides some of us is the notion of 'nudge.'  Thaler and Sunstein wrote a book under that name in 2008, describing ways of "changing the choice architecture" so that people find it easier to do what they want to do, but fail, perhaps because of inertia, to follow through upon.

Two thirds approve in polls of organ donation after death, but less than 30% were completing the form.  The US driver's licence application gave applicants the choice, and they had to choose yes or no.  The number volunteering as organ donors shot up to the two-thirds who approved of it.  The choice to volunteer had been made easier.  Other countries have followed suit with similar results.  Some add a third option: "I do not wish to make a choice at this time."

The BBC news magazine's Home Editor, Mark Easton, has described some successes by the No. 10 Behavioural Insights team, colloquially known as the Nudge Unit.  They boosted job applications by unemployed people by personalizing the invitation.  A simple request to turn up for potential jobs at a supermarket saw 11% come forward.  When the person's name was added to the request ("Hi, Sam…"), it rose to 15%.  When the JobCentre adviser signed it at the bottom ("Good luck, Michael.") the proportion turning up rose to 27%.

The team managed to boost black and ethnic minority (BME) applications to become police officers by adding the words "Congratulations! " and telling applicants they had been "selected to participate in the next stage of the assessment process."  It added "What is it about being a police officer that means the most to you and your community?"

Whereas previously the situational judgement test had been successfully completed by 60% of white applicants but only 40% of BME candidates, the revised wording saw the BME percentage rise to more than match the success rate of white applicants.

Some in the ASI are suspicious of this approach, partly because it involves a decision about what should be nudged, meaning about behaviour that should be encouraged, and partly from a fear that the technique could easily be abused to promote behaviour that people don't want to do.  These should certainly be watched, but if the technique uses polling to ascertain what people would like to do but find difficult, then it can be helpful.

The technique has been used to help people pay their tax arrears more promptly, and to encourage people to put more aside into their pension funds.  Many countries are now adopting these techniques, and the Nudge Unit sells its services to other governments.  Whatever else can be said, to libertarians 'nudge' is better than compulsion.