Behavioural Insights: From Nudge to Push?

Incestuous bureaucracies rarely produce anything of genuine value to the wider world, but the case of the Behavioural Insights Team – a July 2010 establishment with its home deep in the bowels of Her Majesty’s Treasury in London – may be the exception that proves the rule. This entity was inaugurated to come up with ways of changing people’s behaviour with the primary purpose of increasing government revenue at a time when the United Kingdom’s finances are experiencing extraordinary stresses. These methods of behavioural change – one example being the inclusion of a line in bold formatting reading ‘Pay your tax or lose your car’ in car tax payment reminder letters – are small, but surprisingly effective: the bold format line has been credited with doubling car tax payments, while sending personalised text messages instead of letters to people who are the subject of a court fine saw a 600% increase in those settling their dues.

The Behavioural Insights Team (colloquially known as the ‘Nudge Unit’) is a practical manifestation of the theory popularised by American academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, authors of the late 2000s classic Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. The central idea of this work is that via ‘enlisting the science of choice’, humans can be gently bumped into making more optimal decisions. Placing healthier foods in positions of promise in a school dining hall should engender greater uptake of said foods; positioning exercise equipment in accessible public places may encourage those who would not otherwise partake in a cardiovascular workout to exert their bodies.

So far so good. But we feel that given the current and foreseeable socio-economic context, this theory can and should be extended to incorporate slightly more forceful ‘pushes’, since it has long been proven that sometimes a nudge in the right direction is simply not enough:

1. White Collar Adventures. Multinational corporations have long enjoyed a position in which, as the Financial Times recently noted, paying tax is ‘a largely voluntary gesture‘. But would the likes of Starbucks be so keen to employ the crude panoply of accounting expertises if their CEOs were sent a ‘pushy’ letter promising them criminal charges and exemplary fines in the event of taxation irregularities?

2. Drink Aware. The alcohol industry in the United Kingdom has – in the face of a (largely hypothetical) mild increase in regulation – recently stepped up its efforts to make consumers aware of some of the possible negative effects – a spotty face, suspect bodily odour – of their products through the drinkaware.co.uk website. But wouldn’t a reference to the World Health Organisation’s estimated 2.5m deaths per year from alcohol – more than those from violence – cut through the bluster? 

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1 Comment

Filed under Political Science, Politics, Psychology

One response to “Behavioural Insights: From Nudge to Push?

  1. I think governments have done very well in making nudge theory part of their spin, making it look as if they are doing something, without actually doing anything and without upsetting big business. The text message example, though, is I think quite a nice one, where a government department does seem to want to be genuinely helpful. It shows that whilst politicians don’t seem to have any principles or scruples there are still civil servants who have not forgotten that their duty is to serve as best as possible, rather than bathing in self-glory or defending the interests of party donors.

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