Nudge, nudge

Until yesterday I had never heard of the government’s Behavioural Insights Team, otherwise known as the Nudge Unit. Last night I watched a news item about how they have been changing the way officials communicate with taxpayers and consumers to persuade them to behave differently, and apparently saving the government hundreds of millions of pounds in the process.

The Nudge Unit are psychologists and behavioural economists (another new one to me), and what they get up to is this: they swap nasty, menacing old-style official correspondence for a more pleasant and contemporary style of communication, and give people a decent reason to do whatever it is they want them to do.

For example, the Nudge Unit selected a group of wealthy taxpayers who were in default and sent some of them the standard threatening letter. In response to this four out of 10 coughed up. To others they pointed out that the tax they owed would improve local services. The response rate rose to 47%. To others still they explained that without the tax that was owed, local services could disappear. This prompted 56% to reach for their cheque books. At the end of the exercise the government was £210m better off.

In another exercise they set out to improve attendance at Job Centre interviews. When they sent a text message to applicants with no more than simple time and place information, a mere 11% turned up. When they addressed the applicant by his or her first name, the figure rose to 15%. When the Job Centre advisor signed the text personally, it went up to 17%. And, believe it or not, when the Job Centre advisor wished the applicant good luck, it shot up to 27%.

In last night’s report the journalist muttered predictably about manipulation and the potentially sinister implications of such governmental goings-on. But it struck me as being pretty straightforward and pretty sensible. If you want people to do things, explain why and speak to them nicely.

Over the last two or three years I’ve been involved in an ongoing programme to help my local authority communicate more effectively with their tenants. Most of the time, the reason they’re communicating in the first place is because there’s a problem; one that is very often, though not always, of the tenant’s making. It took me about two minutes to be convinced that far from resolving these problems, the council’s traditional communication style nearly always exacerbated them.

So our programme has been all about writing letters that sound human and helpful and empathetic, that don’t threaten and don’t sound as if they automatically assume the tenant is in the wrong, that don’t quote great chunks of incomprehensible tenancy agreements at them, and that explain in a friendly way why, for example, it’s worth keeping the common stairs clean.

I’m not a psychologist, and certainly not a behavioural economist, and I haven’t saved my local authority millions of pounds. But I do believe that together we’ve made a difference, both for the staff and for some of their traditionally less obliging customers. I’ve said it ad nauseam over the six years of writing this blog, but I’ll say it again, this time by paraphrasing the last few lines of my friend Elspeth Murray’s brilliant poem This Is Bad Enough in what might become the Nudge Unit’s new motto: speaking like a human makes it better, not worse.

PS Here is a wonderfully (and literally) playful example of nudging. With thanks to Martin Lee.

About Jamie Jauncey

Author, writer, blogger, facilitator, musician, co-founder of Dark Angels and The Stories We Tell
This entry was posted in Business speak, Business writing, Empathy, Jargon, Language and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

5 Responses to Nudge, nudge

  1. From Martin Lee:
    Nudging is pretty much my day job! Behavioural economics and its poncey correlate (cognitive biases) are the tools of my trade. But as you rightly say, it’s mostly about getting companies to behave better. And I’m 100% with you about it not being sinister, but respectful. The reason for some of the suspicion is that one of the great bits of nudging was in Schipol Airport, where men were ‘nudged’ into paying more attention in urinals by painting small flies in the middle, to improve their aim… It meant less unpleasant work for janitors. Here’s another classic bit of behaviour change (see YouTube link above). Really interesting. The idea is – make something enjoyable, and people will do something they think they don’t want to.

  2. From Nick Parker:
    The thing is, though, you are a behavioural economist. Almost all business writers are. (The irony is that all economics should be ‘behavioural’. The real re-naming that needs doing is that ‘classical’ economics needs renaming as ‘wrong economics’.)

  3. ‘Nudge’ was one of the first ideas employed by the new government in 2010. The inspiration – enthusiastically adopted by Cameron and Osborne in the lead-up to the election – was the 2008 book by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

    Like ‘The Big Society’, it brought opprobrium on the Tories, because – of course – they can’t be seen to be doing anything that might be thought of as humane, or reasonable or, whisper it, gentle. And, of course, it has to be said that David Cameron’s first major public outing of the ‘nudge’ approach – ‘hug a hoodie’ – was fairly crass.

    But behind the scenes, both ‘nudge’ and ‘the big society’ are still there, still developing. This kind of thinking was also behind the project to identify problem families – those who are the biggest strain on social services, the benefits system and local police. When 120,000 families were identified, the government was vilified for ‘blaming’ people for their own misfortunes. But quietly, the project has developed and many of those families have been helped (nudged) on the road to escaping their own vicious cycle. The latest report was published in July last year. Another may be due.

    Whatever you think of the Tories, nearly 2m people are back in work, progress is being made to rid ourselves of the dreadful and shaming ‘underclass’ (those now into their third generation existing on benefits), and the £9+ living wage minimum will certainly be giving the Opposition nightmares. We can all laugh, as the Telegraph did in 2010, at ‘trendy’ ideas from ‘trendy’ books. But, as Tony Blair once said (credit where it’s due!) let’s do what works. Nudge, nudge …….

  4. wrbcg says:

    As with much in psychology, nudge is just a common sense appoach (so obvious that it is ignored until some psychologist points it out). It is, of itself, neither sinister nor irreproachable. Yes, there is potential for abuse; but that is true of any intervention.

    There are, I suspect, many solicitors (given recent letters I have received from a firm in Edinburgh) who could do with learning to nudge rather than threaten, especially where what is required to resolve the situation is negotiation.

  5. Carolyn Strobos says:

    Brilliant. A few kind words…. Why do we forget?

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