How to Nudge Citizens in Public Policy – Marcus Clarke


In the political landscape, Nudge Theory is a la mode. It is attractive to politicians and voters alike because it tries to change behavior using seemingly innocuous environmental changes and suggestion, taking its cues from behavioral psychology, and it does not compromise personal choice or individual liberty. It is becoming widely used across the world by governments, and is proving to be successful, not least for one of its creators who recently won the Nobel Prize in economics.

Three simple examples cited by the Economist will illustrate what we mean. The Westminster government actually has a whole unit dedicated to formulating policy influenced by the theory. One policy trialed by the government involved the payment of road tax. Those who were behind on their payments were sent a letter in plain English telling them that  ‘if you don’t pay you will lose your car’, and some contained a picture of the owners pride and joy. This tripled payments. The Danish government likewise tried an experiment. They wanted to encourage people to take the stairs rather than the lift, so they painted arrows on the floor leading to the stairs. This had no effect. However, an experiment in which wrapped sweets were handed out found that painting footsteps leading to the bins reduced littering. They believe that this is because there are no social norms about taking the stairs, but there are about littering.  Likewise, in the US the government wanted to reduce energy consumption, so they sent letters to those who consumed a lot of electricity suggesting that their neighbors used less. This reduced their consumption.

A lot of these policies try to influence behavior through social norms: making the suggestion that other are acting differently as a means to causes shift in behavior. This might be why it is otherwise known as ‘liberal paternalism’: Nudge theory doesn’t compromise individual liberty, but it can often lead to desire changes in behavior. However, this is not always successful. Many believe, for example, that some populations, take the French for example, are less susceptible to the influence of social norms that the British and other countries, and so this approach may not work, though there are other options, namely relying on inertia. For example, many policies that are currently being introduced by governments do this. The Danish government have begun to ask their citizens to become organ donors when they apply for their driving license, as this is a decision that many people put off. In the same way, many governments have started to make this, as well as other things (for example, in England, pension saving) an opt-out rather than an opt-in system, which again relies on inertia and people putting off decision-making. So, Nudge theory clearly has potential for policy makers: it maintains freedom of choice, it doesn’t rely on wholesale changes or huge intervention, and it works.

Taking the theory into the present day, the Behavioral Insights team have commented upon the recently introduced ‘sugar tax’, which is also a way in which Nudge theory can be put into practice. They say that, though this policy is not a nudge in the classic sense (they prefer a more soft touch approach than introducing taxes), they recognize the validity of policies such as this, especially as obesity, including that in children, is such as huge problem. We shall see what impact this has.

Marcus Clarke regularly blogs at psysci, a psychology, science blog that examines the latest research and explains how findings can impact and improve people’s lives.

The infographic below highlights examples of Nudge Theory.


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