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Nudging for good – David Halpern and Owain Service

1st Sep 2015

As the world leading behavioural scientists gather in London to share new and remarkable results, a new book – Inside the Nudge Unit – urges we ‘nudge for good’, and all keep an eye on who nudges the nudgers.

This week, the world’s leading behavioural experts are gathering in the UK, together with representatives from more than 20 countries.

There is a growing recognition that almost every policy issue has a human, behavioural aspect at its core. The majority of healthy years of life lost are from behavioural factors: smoking, diet, exercise. Research also shows the impact on health of less obvious behavioural factors too: a new study released at the event shows how giving to charity lowers blood pressure as much as changing diet. Similarly, reducing global warming rests on both technical and lifestyle change; public services rest on people being honest and paying their taxes; and productivity rests as much on motivation and engagement as it does economic incentives.

The last 5 years have seen hard results from applying behavioural insights to policy. Millions more people are saving for pensions as a result of changing from an opt-in to opt-out system. Hundreds of thousands of have been helped back to work faster as a result of encouraging them to plan out the next week, instead of proving what they did in the previous one. And hundreds of millions in tax revenue has been brought forward by small changes in tax reminders, such as pointing out that most people pay on time.

Back in 2010, many thought it was a gimmick. Not many think that any more. Governments across the world are turning to behavioural insights, many creating ‘nudge units’ in the manner of the UK’s own Behavioural Insights Team, including the USA, Germany, Singapore, New South Wales, Canada, Israel and many more.

As can be seen from the programme at the Behavioural Exchange 2015 conference in London, behavioural scientists have moved from tweaking letters to get people to pay their taxes on time onto some of the great issues of our time, such as how to increase social mobility, boost economic growth, and create societies and economies that foster happiness and wellbeing.

Yet as behavioural science, and nudging, increasingly finds itself with a place at the policymaking table, it brings in its wake important questions that are too big to be left to the behavioural scientists alone.

The first involves the use of trials – or experiments – across government and public services. Behavioural scientists are ‘hyper-empiricists’. This is an incredibly important development, which we think should be welcomed. The alternative, after all, is to roll out new policies across the country without ever checking whether they actually work. But such experimental approaches also need to be accompanied by robust checks and balances. Public support cannot be taken for granted, as illustrated by the public reaction to Facebook’s experiments with changing the emotional mix in news feeds.

The second, more fundamental question is ‘who nudges the nudgers?’ In the USA, the argument is made that nudges should be ‘choice enhancing’, such as how changing the default for pension still leaves the choice in the hands of the saver, so that citizens remain in control. But given that so many everyday choices are made unconsciously, this doesn’t seem enough of an answer. In our view, as governments expand their use of behavioural approaches and experimentation, they will also need to up their game in how the public is involved in shaping their use. In essence, the public will need to become more involved in choosing how and when governments – and businesses – can and should nudge them.

This isn’t a simple task. Research conducted by Ipsos MORI for the conference showed that 86% of people in the UK think that government should make food producers and shops promote healthy choices. But a majority (53%) also agreed that governments should not get involved in what people choose to eat.

What we think we can agree on, though, is that the question of who nudges the nudgers is one that will need more than the experts gathered in Westminster this week. It needs all of us to decide.

Inside the Nudge Unit, by David Halpern with Owain Service and the Behavioural Insights Team, published by WHAllen on 27th August