For all my mealy mouthed moaning about the worst excesses of 'nanny state' command and control from the Brown government I am becoming more and more interested in nudging. I recently heard a short interview with Richard Thaler (Faculty page at University of Chicago) a co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness (amazon link) which increased my interest further. I've not read it yet, but will shortly order my copy and will probably post a review of it when I am done.
Nudge theory (if we call it that) is drawn from behavioural economics, a furrow more recently ploughed by Malcolm Gladwell (The Tipping Point) and Stephen Dubner (Freakonomics). The discipline which combated the assumption that individuals will act rationally to price incentives to promote their self interest. Within a political context it is a mechanism which could be used as an alternative or supplementary way to nudge people toward jobs or particular health outcomes instead of using the more traditional levers of taxes or benefits. The government recently unveiled a 'nudge unit' with an annual budget of around £500,000 per annum. Whether it is something novel or whether it is a rehash of something else one thing is for sure that 'nudging' is on the political spectrum and agenda in 2011.
The whole idea of cattle herding in any kind of authoritarian manner evokes thoughts of a hardened Orwellian conception of the big brother state, but from most of the contemporary examples Ive heard it cant be so bad can it?
Here's my top five contemporary nudges to help avail that Big Brother scaremongering!
- White Lines: (thanks to Francis Maude via Guardian CiF). In 1921 in Sutton Coldfield in the West Midlands following a spate of road accidents rather than banning cars or adding barriers some smart nudger decided to paint a white line down the middle of the road to nudge people away from accidents (full link).
- Opt Out Pensions: By making company pension schemes opt out rather than opt in take up can be boosted without making anything compulsory. The responsibility is on the individual to opt out if they so wish.
- The Amsterdam Airport Urinal: This seems the copy book example in the press. Concerned by spillages at the foot of urinals at Schipol airport in Amsterdam a nudger decided that by etching an image of a black house fly onto the bowl of the airport urinal (just to the left of the drain) they could reduce spillage. And they did by 80%!
- Calorie Posting: The labelling and listing by companies such as Starbucks and McDonalds of the calorie levels in their products had improved take up of healthier options particularly on products for children.
- Musical Stairs: To stop people using the escalators and improve their health how about nudging them towards the stairs by making them more fun. Example from Sweden (see video below)
Maybe due to past readings of Foucault, Orwell and Pierson and explorations of path dependency have done this but the logic's of 'Choice Architecture' both frighten and excite me in equal measure. Fantastic paper (free download here).
A significant nod and hat tip to the Nudge blog (read more here)
This weeks spotify link is unsurprisingly that infamous Python sketch, well 'a nudge is as good as a wink to a blind bat'.