I work at home most Fridays and pick my (almost) 3 year old son up from nursery around 3.30. This usually involves a pleasant 15 walk home in which he typically falls asleep in his pram, but on Friday it was windy, raining heavily and I was ill-prepared. There was no rain cover for the pram, and I had a hole in the sole of my right shoe.
That much was my fault, but we were both eager to get home quickly, and I think my decision to swiftly walk to the closest bus stop was a good one. I was relieved when, through the rain, I saw the 93 was coming down Putney hill.
Like most passengers, I associate bus numbers with standardises bus routes. The 93 connects North Cheam with Putney Bridge station and I have taken it literally hundreds of times. So what happens at a cognitive level is that I search and acquire the information I need. ’93′ was that information, but ’85′, ’14′ or ’39′ would have done just as well.
You look for a number, because the number is the proxy symbol for a complex piece of information, namely the bus route, which looks silly on the front of the bus. I rarely look at where the bus is going, and when I do it’s typically a clear day were I have lots of time on my hands.
On Friday, I was cold, wet, my son was grizzly, and I stopped at ’93′- to the automatic system that number meant fastest way home and I got on the bus, swiped my card for £1.35 and expected to be taken to the bottom of Putney high street, which would leave us with a two minute walk home.
After one stop, however, there was a machine announcement: ‘this bus terminates here’. The bus had taken an un-typical route and stopped about three stops before its usual terminus, approximately 3/4 of a mile away. A fellow passenger got to the driver before me to complain, asking that he should at least scribble a note or give a ticket so she could complete her journey for free, rather than having to pay twice for the same journey. I had the same request, so backed her up but the driver argued: “Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”
“Did you not see, before you got on the bus, where the bus was going?”
I loved that question because although it sounds fair and innocent, it highlights that there may be a lack of insight into how automatic most passenger behaviour in London has become. Perhaps Oyster cards are partly the cause of this (and the reason you have to pay twice if you take two busses instead of one to complete the same journey) but more generally we tend to take in as little information as possible while making transport decisions.
My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.”
My answer of course, was ‘no’, and my fellow passenger said the same. We both just saw 93 and assumed it was following the normal route. The driver was pleasant enough, but his attitude was that if we didn’t read where the bus was going, it was our own fault. My fellow passenger responded: “Are you joking or what? I don’t want to pay twice for the same journey.”
He said the policy of giving discretionary fares only applies when the bus doesn’t say where it is going at the point at which you board the bus(in this case it said Putney Station, which could also easily be misread where you expect to see Putney Bridge). In the wet heat of the moment, I asked for his bus number (#17) and said, calmly, that I would report this incident because I felt he had discretion he wasn’t willing to use.
(Also, why do they stop early in any case? Is it just for driver convenience at getting on and off, or are the deeper reasons why buses don’t complete their routes?)
It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result.
Thankfully, by the time this conversation ended, the worst of the rain had subsided and I pushed the pram home for ten minutes, enduring little more than a soggy sock, my son fell asleep as planned…and soon all was well.
It was a minor incident, but interesting for what it indicates about the assumptions behind transport policy. Thinking through related assumptions may have implications for the massive campaign to improve transport behaviour during and after the Olympics.
It is just wrong to assume that passengers are conscious information processors. Most of the time we are goal-seeking on auto-pilot, and will make many ‘mistakes’ as a result. (Indeed, ‘expect error’ was one of the main pieces of advice from Thaler and Sunstein in Nudge).
My practical point is that lots of passengers rightly make the assumption that the bus is following its normal route. So when the bus is going less than all the way, it is incumbent on TFL to make that irregularity clearer than merely having it on the front of the bus(which few will read). This might mean a notice by the oyster card machine before you swipe, or, perhaps better, a dotted line around the bus number to indicate that although it is the same bus, it is not going ‘all the way’.
It seems that as soon as Andrew Lansley announced plans to “nudge” the population towards healthier and more socially responsible behaviour, scathing criticisms have been levelled at the alleged naivety – and to some the danger – of his policy backing for voluntary pledges, grounded in nudge theory. The Commons health select committee criticised the Department of Health’s (DH) Public Health Responsibility Deals as ineffective for tackling health and social problems such as smoking, excessive drinking and obesity – warning that they could widen health inequalities; that self-interested companies should not be allowed to set the agenda; and that the government should use legislation if “nudging” fails. The House of Lords Science and Technology Committee similarly questioned the efficacy of using voluntary mechanisms without sufficient regulatory measures to achieve behaviour change. Even internally within government the idea has had little traction; a National Audit Office report last year noted government departments were not consulting the Behavioural Insight Team on issues around alternatives to regulation at the assessment stage. Oliver Letwin even acknowledged that it was “open to question whether any of this would have any effect whatsoever.” The Behavioural Insights Team itself cautioned that “’nudge’ approaches should not be seen as a hard alternative to other policy approaches, but a useful complement or additional tool.”
The recent government decision on minimum alcohol pricing has brought the issue back into sharp focus. David Cameron has effectively clashed with the DH (and the drinks industry) on the issue and has agreed with health experts. The tensions were evident in the decision by the Department of Health to issue a press release about recent achievements of the responsibility deal just as the minimum pricing decision was close to completion. Just as in the past, the Department’s voluntary pledges have come under attack and have been unsettled by evidence that conflicts with its core assumptions by experts and research – including a Sheffield University study that shows raising prices cuts drinking. The consumer watchdog Which? has also conducted an audit of the Government’s use of voluntary pledges to tackle obesity and found that many food companies have failed to commit, and that legislation needs to replace “doomed” voluntary schemes.
It appears that the Department of Health is committing the error that the government’s own Behavioural Insights Team warned against; using “nudge” as a “hard tool”, rather than a complementary addition to other policy approaches such as legislation and regulation. Behavioural economics offers great insights into how pro-social behaviour can be promoted without always relying on ‘hard’ state intervention, and the RSA has demonstrated this in numerous publications as part of its Social Brain project. Similarly, as Matthew Taylor has argued, businesses can use their expertise on (effectively) manipulating our cognitive systems (which they have used for their highly sophisticated marketing strategies) to achieve “downstream” social gains – and therefore they have a part to play in promoting positive behaviour change. But evidence indicates that in highly complex issues that have a huge impact on society – such as how to deal with obesity, drinking or smoking – “nudging” cannot be the centrepiece, but rather a complementary part of a larger, more comprehensive package. The DH’s failure to acknowledge this has led to critics deriding the responsibility deals as coups for big business – an impression reinforced by experts, consumer groups and civil society groups walking out on previous negotiations. A distinct lack of support and collaboration is unlikely to lead to the development of effective policy for meeting complex challenges.
And this is a key lesson we have learned at the 2020 Public Services Hub while researching collaborative and innovative forms of regulation for our Zero Carbon Hub case study. In zero carbon new homes policy, we found that voluntary schemes alone were insufficient for achieving significant carbon reductions for new homes, and that it was a collaborative form of regulation that explained the major achievements towards zero carbon targets. The careful establishment of the Zero Carbon Hub enabled key stakeholders (including Government, business and civil society groups) to collectively produce solutions, facilitated by the ‘shared space’ provided by the Hub and supported by its clear long-term policy vision, without needing to resort to lobbying government to influence policy. This is in clear contrast to the DH responsibility deals, where the debate is highly polarised and different stakeholders show little interest in engaging one another. Had the Department followed the example of the ZCH, where collaborative regulation – rather than state withdrawal and voluntary nudging – is the organising principle of policy, a significantly more comprehensive and effective approach to tackling public health issues may have emerged. It may be time to see tools such as nudge as valuable parts of a collaborative policy framework that includes regulation – but a new, smarter form that is able to convince industry, government, experts and civil society to participate in ‘shared spaces’; transcending both traditional, top-down state intervention and the ineffectual volunteerism approach promoted by sections of the right. Some on the right see behavioural economics as an opportunity for state disengagement (claiming that a “nudging state” is a better alternative to a “nanny state”) – but if it is to effectively inform policy, behavioural economics should not be (mis)used in this way.
Are there any aspects of social policy that cannot be addressed by a behaviour change approach?
The recently established Behavioural Insight Unit – or ‘Nudge Unit’ – is making wide-ranging recommendations about how to improve people’s lives, and its creation seems to represent a shift away from the New Labour approach of addressing the structural causes of social problems. So far, though, none of the issues it has tackled seem as complex or deep-rooted as the problems that were the focus of New Labour’s fairly self-explanatory Social Exclusion Unit, Anti-Social Behaviour Unit, Neighbourhood Renewal Unit, and others. And yet the current governing parties (the Conservatives in particular, with their depiction of ‘Broken Britain’) were not shy about highlighting social problems such as these when in opposition.
Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?
The government may have changed during the last year, but the social landscape in the UK has not. So if there has been a shift in approach, it begs the question: can a behavioural strategy which focuses on individuals address the types of social issue highlighted by New Labour’s policy units and the Conservatives’ pre-election rhetoric? Is there anything that can be achieved by behaviour change models in the face of something as complex and deep-seated as social exclusion?
This is a question I’ve begun to consider for the RSA, which through its Social Brain and Connected Communities projects has great interest in the issues of behaviour change and social capital. I’d be really interested to get some comments on this, but my early thoughts are that, yes, there is potential for a behavioural approach to be effective – but it’s not as simple as Nudge.
There are perhaps two fundamental sets of factors behind social exclusion. One is structural: low levels of social capital, high local unemployment, poor transport infrastructure, high turnover and diversity of the local population, fear of crime etc. We obviously can’t ignore or deny the significance of these challenges. But there is also a second set of factors: the behaviour patterns or (for want of more sensitive terms) habits and inertia that are established by exclusion, and make it difficult to escape from that situation. It is this second aspect of exclusion that I think suggests an opportunity for a behaviour change approach.
First, let’s be clear about terminology. By ‘habit’ I mean a pattern of behaviours and attitudes that has become so well established as to be carried out without conscious thought. By ‘inertia’, I mean an inability or unwillingness to change in the face of external pressures or a lack of incentives. It is habits that I want to focus on here, because once they are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.
As the Steer report from the RSA’s Social Brain project describes, habits direct most of our decisions and much of our behaviour, for good or for ill. They are driven by the automatic brain system, which works intuitively, instinctively and extremely quickly. Habits can be guided by our controlled brain system, which is where we make conscious, deliberated choices (this is akin to the rational, economic model of behaviour change, or the ‘think’ model). But the controlled brain is slower and weaker than the automatic brain when it comes to decision making, and since the latter has an innate preference for what it already knows, the odds are stacked heavily in favour of automatic continuation of things as usual.
Once habits are established they are essentially self-perpetuating and isolated from external pressures, and can therefore be addressed in themselves.
Moreover, trying something different is rewarding at first (specifically, it triggers a pleasant dose of dopamine in the brain), but the novelty and reward quickly wear off after a few iterations, as anyone who has a lapsed gym membership can testify, and the incentive to keep to the new routine is reduced.
Habits can also be influenced by the environment in which the automatic decisions are taken (as in the ‘nudge’ model), but again the ingrained nature of the behaviour means the odds are stacked in favour of the existing routine.
Changing habits, then, is very difficult. As the Steer report argues, it requires first a recognition that habit can be guided deliberately, that the environment can have an influence, and that change is initially attractive, but also that each of these is weak and short-lived compared to the brain’s long-term preference for the status quo. Then it requires an approach that takes all this into account.
So what does this mean for social exclusion? Exclusion may be caused by structural factors, and those factors may contribute to its persistence, but while it persists an ‘excluded’ pattern of behaviour and attitudes becomes established and normal – and it is this habitual rut, as much as the external challenges, that prevents people from improving their situation. Whatever the challenges they face, individuals may consciously try to become more socially included, but unless they recognise and understand how their habits work, and in particular appreciate the relative weakness of their controlled brain, their ‘willpower’ will either fail to make a difference or they will give up on it before a difference can be made. And if this happens often enough, they will stop trying.
Likewise a change in the environment, such as an improvement in local transport services or an invitation from a friend to do something different, may not be enough to break the habit if there is no corresponding deliberate effort. Neither ‘nudge’ nor ‘think’ will work on its own; but a combination of the two, and recognition of the need for persistence once the initial reward for novelty has worn off, has a chance of success.
While it is of course important to deal with the structural challenges people face, I think this offers an opening for a behaviour change approach as well. If people are caught in a habitual cycle, and this, alongside unemployment, poor transport and other factors, is what perpetuates their exclusion, they stand a better chance of improving their situation if they recognise their habits for what they are, and understand how these work and can be changed. And if they do succeed in breaking their excluded habits, some may even be able to overcome the structural challenges that caused their exclusion in the first place.
Thoughts on how this might work in practice are for another post, but I think the principle has potential. It may sound naïve or unrealistic, or even callous, to argue for something other than dealing with structural challenges, but I think enabling people who are socially excluded to address and overcome one of the main sets of factors perpetuating their situation is both possible and worthwhile. What do you think?
Nudging, as Jonathan Rowson points out in a recent post on this blog, is already the flavour of the month and looks like being at the top of the menu for the rest of 2011. The government has recently announced that in the coming year we will be ‘nudged’ towards paying our taxes, quitting smoking, insulating our houses and signing up to be an organ donor. The media is lavishing attention on the idea. And the term is gaining such traction that it’s being misapplied to behaviour change measures which are rather more ‘shove’ than ‘nudge’, such as the decision to increase tax on high-strength beer and reduce it on low-alcohol brews.
At the moment, all this publicity and attention seems a bit ironic, given that nudges are meant to be minor interventions which operate unnoticed in the background. It’s perhaps unsurprising, given this is a new idea – in UK policy terms, at least. But for a number of reasons, it risks causing problems in the long run.
If nudges are to succeed, it’s surely better that we don’t recognise them for what they are and what they are trying to do.
First, there’s the point I’ve just made: if nudges are meant to go unnoticed, will they work if we are looking out for them? One of the arguments made in favour of nudges is that they are the antithesis of public approaches to behaviour change, like didactic communication, education and regulation. Apparently, in the past we have ignored, misinterpreted or reacted against these measures. We seem to have an innate antipathy to being told what to do, but because we are not very good at making behavioural choices that are in our best interests for ourselves, we have been making poor decisions in contexts ranging from healthy eating to financial planning.
Nudges are designed to circumvent this active rejection of good advice, and overcome our inability to choose well, by changing the environments in which we make subconscious decisions and thereby influencing our actions. Essentially, they work by making us passive reactors to suggestion rather than active decision makers responding to stimulus.
If nudges are to succeed, then, it’s surely better that we don’t recognise them for what they are and what they are trying to do. Otherwise we might be tempted to ignore or react against them, just as we have with direct communication. HMRC’s plan to nudge people into paying their tax by rewording its tax letters might be more effective if we respond to the suggestive wording without thinking about it than if we are looking out for it when we open the letter. So perhaps they should just go ahead and do it without telling us all about it.
Nudges are more paracetamol than radiotherapy – they might have an impact on the surface and around the edges, but they won’t address the causes of more serious and long-term problems.
Second, the current focus on nudges attracts the vocal attention of cynics and sceptics, many of whom are arguing that there is something underhand about nudging, that it is just another form of the ‘nanny state’, and/or that it involves ‘playing with people’s brains’. (There’s a wonderful example here, which includes a total misunderstanding of the RSA’s Social Brain project.) It seems to me that much of this criticism stems from a lack of understanding of the idea of ‘choice architecture’ which should underpin nudges – a sensible theory that is not exactly Big Brother and the Thought Police. Still, the negative commentary sounds good, and can’t help.
Third, all this attention risks giving the impression that nudges are the government’s sole response to the problems facing society today. There’s certainly a place for them, but there’s no way they can address deep-seated issues such as obesity, social isolation and binge drinking on their own. They’re more paracetamol than radiotherapy – they might have an impact on the surface and around the edges, but they won’t address the causes of more serious and long-term problems.
I can see why nudges are attractive at the moment – they’re cheap and light-touch, which is just what the government wants. But while they’re useful, they’re clearly not a panacea, and giving the impression that they are risks undermining support for them.
Nudging seems to me to be a good idea, and certainly worth a try. So perhaps the government should stay quiet about what it is planning, and just get on with nudging. If it works, they can tell us all about it afterwards.
Oh, and if I come across another blog post titled ‘Nudge, nudge, wink, wink’ I think I’ll scream!
Nudge is fast becoming to behaviour change what Google is to search engines. We have started to use the term as a catch-all shorthand for a patchy understanding of something like ‘all those fancy psycho-social tricks that alter how people think and act’. In doing so we are in danger of squeezing out all the other approaches we have to changing behaviour that might be more powerful or appropriate, including Think, Steer, and Mindfulness.
Tim Hartford is one of many who argue that ‘nudge’ is being overused, and suggests that we should be wary of applying a concept designed for markets to inform the the way Government changes the behaviour of citizens.
‘Nudge’ was the title of the book by Thaler and Sunstein that created the excitement around behaviour change, but as Richard Thaler indicated while speaking at the RSA, Nudge is really just a catchy term for the much more complex notion of ’Libertarian Paternalism‘ that is supposed to underpin nudge interventions. The idea is that you don’t undermine people’s freedom by choosing for them, but merely encourage them to make certain choices by altering the environment in certain ways, changing feedback mechanisms and shifting defaults.
An intelligent use of choice arcitecture makes good sense to me, but the paternalism is not unproblematic. For instance, speaking at the RSA, Anne Coote referred to “The whole ghastly nudge business which is actually about encouraging conformity”.
Moreover, it is not really transformative, which is perhaps, darkly, why people like it. Nudge changes the environment in such a way that people change their behaviour, but it doesn’t change people at any deeper level in terms of attitudes, values, motivations etc. And, as Clive Gross argued on RSA Comment, we risk oversimplifying why we change our behaviour
In any case, you can hardly open a page these days without being ‘nudged’ and Downing Street’s ‘Behavioural Insight Team’ is called ‘the nudge unit’.
I was prompted to share these thoughts after reading quite a detailed piece on the work of this team in The Independent. However, what I really wanted to say, is that if I am absolutely honest, I think one of the main reasons ‘nudge’ has become so popular is that it sounds like ‘fudge’.
I am not being entirely facetious. For instance, social psychology has taught us that we prefer people with names similar to our own, and although I can’t prove that we are thinking of fudge when we say nudge, my gut feeling is that this tacit association needs to be part of the story…
Filed under: Education Matters, Social Brain, Social Economy
As the seminal battle over changes to higher education funding reaches boiling point with the deciding vote in the Commons today, commentators from the anti-cuts camp have been hunkering down in search of discrepancies within the government’s proposals, most notably the Browne Review upon whose recommendations these changes were largely based. On the face of it – and it would seem enough to appease many Liberal Democrats – these changes represent as progressive and fair a system as we could hope for in the coming years; austerity, we are told, demands some sacrifices, but it doesn’t have to be all that bad. Indeed, David Cameron writing in the Evening Standard last week and in a speech last night seeks to inculcate a sense of optimism about the changes to higher education, citing better choice, a fairer deal for poorer students, the offer of more student support and a higher quality of teaching.
Although within the bill there exist some noteworthy positive changes, there are unfortunately some glaringly obvious and serious flaws to be drawn out. To take one example, raising tuition fees to the £6-9k level proposed will never amount to covering the reductions in teaching budgets, especially in the areas of arts and humanities which face cuts of 80%, raising the question of how exactly it is that teaching quality will be improved in the years ahead. Without delving too deep into the many caveats of these HE alterations, there is one particular contradiction that seems impossible to ignore.
Underpinning these new proposals is a fervent belief in the market where the provision of higher education is expected to be dictated in large part by consumer choice, rather than through the top-down provision of public funds. Put simply, the idea is that the money will flow to the institutions and courses which students decide to opt for as opposed to the existing arrangement which sees a widely administered teaching grant applied to all sorts of courses and higher education institutions, regardless of initial demand. Here there is not just a faith in the market, but more importantly, there is a faith in the ability of students to rationally decide where to study and what to study; to garner together all relevant information and to calculate whether they’ll be in the red or the black in the future depending on which course and university they decide to choose.
But it is in this view of human nature where the real problem lies. Lord Browne writes that a service delivered upon student satisfaction will incentivise universities to provide better choice, quality and more appropriate teaching. This is founded upon what he momentarily takes as a truism: that ‘students are best placed to make the judgement about what they want to get from participating in higher education’. But, as Stefan Collini pointed out in the LRB recently, in considering where the remaining central pot of government funding should be distributed, Lord Browne immediately retreats in his apparent faith of student’s ability to consider the full facts, evidence and arguments before making judgements:
It is fascinating, and very revealing, to see how Browne’s unreal confidence in the rationality of subjective consumer choice is matched by his lack of belief in reasoned argument and judgment. The sentence that immediately follows the vacuous one about students’ ‘wants’ reads: ‘We have looked carefully at the scope to distribute funding by some objective metric of quality; but there is no robust way to do this and we doubt whether the choices of a central funding body should be put before those of students.’
We all know that the ‘homo economicus’ view of human nature is an inherently flawed one, but the government seems to select where and when it chooses to rely on this perspective. Yes, when it comes to certain aspects of deciding higher education proposals, we can rely on this calculating view of human nature. But, as Aditya Chakrabortty points out, when it comes to something like encouraging healthy eating or pro-environmental behaviour, it seems as if we’re not so rational after all. Earlier this year a ‘nudge’ unit was set up in the Cabinet Office with the explicit aim of coming up with initiatives which could subtly direct people towards choosing decisions that were seen as the best for them, but which they wouldn’t have chosen of their own accord. For example, the idea of redesigning the canteen so that healthier types of food were more visible. As Nick Clegg pointed out at the time, this is important because each and every one of us is susceptible to the risk of being short-termist.
“In real life, people eat doughnuts, decide not to go for a run, and put off making payments into their pension fund. The economists say this means we are engaged in an ‘irrational discounting of time’. The rest of us describe it as being human.”
Humans, we are told, make mistakes, they don’t plan for the long-term and they don’t take into account the full facts. If the fate of higher education – and by implication the lives of thousands of students, teaching staff and university institutions – is to be determined in part by an out-dated account of human nature, of which Nick Clegg himself occasionally derides, there is something fundamentally wrong with these new proposals.
Up until the eighteenth century, one of the effects of the industrial revolution was to leave the UK short of wood. In 1755, through premiums and medals, the RSA encouraged tree planting “for the supply of the Navy, the employment and advantage of the poor, as well as the ornamenting of the nation”. Over 50m trees were planted until the end of the project in 1835.
In the 21st century we’re still grappling with the need to use resources sustainably, but a lack of UK forests is no longer a pressing danger. Climate change and the need to reduce carbon dioxide emissions is a much more urgent challenge. Another change between then and now is that the approaches we can take to solving problems have developed. For example, because many of today’s RSA projects examine how individuals and communities can make a difference, knowledge from fields such as behavioural economics is important to informing strategies and explaining unexpected side-effects.
The UK’s roads are a fascinating and (environmentally-speaking) important (car travel contributes more carbon dioxide than any other form of transport in the UK) arena in which to develop behavioural interventions. Across many motorways, for example, lines painted at decreasing intervals on the approach to a roundabout, trick drivers into thinking they are driving too fast and encourage them to reduce speed.
But in a neat (and hopefully not too tenuous) link between the RSA’s past and its present, I wanted to post about Norfolk council, who are piloting a scheme that uses trees planted at the road-side to nudge drivers into driving more safely:
The planting of trees and hedges is designed to reduce speed ‘by playing with the driver’s peripheral vision’. One technique involved placing trees – at decreasing distances apart – on the approach to a village, tricking drivers into thinking they were speeding. (thanks to @danlockton for the link to the Independent’s coverage)
The main benefit of course is safer driving but is also likely (depending on the type of road) to reduce the carbon emissions of passing traffic. It seems to me a rather ingenious example of making use of a feature that could have been planted regardless – “a good result for what is a very cheap method” as Stuart Hallett, the casualty reduction manager observed. There’s also something nicely cyclical about using a natural carbon sink to reduce emissions…