Nudge nudge, wink wink

26th March 2020 By Chris Jenkins 0

For those of you from a certain era will remember this line from a certain Monty Python sketch.  There is possibly a link between that and this blog post but I’ll let you decide!  With the current COVID-19 situation, using nudge theory could be good to ensure people act in way which which is beneficial to themselves and others.

Nudging in the way we initially think about it is about a physical act between one person and another.  Somebody attractive walks into a bar, you may nudge your friend.   A couple start having an argument in a restaurant, you may nudge your friend along with a raised eyebrow and perhaps a pricked up ear.  These are conscious actions as a reaction to a specific situation where you would like to make somebody aware of said situation. Do you expect a response? Maybe you do but your initial purpose is to just make them aware of something happening.  Imagine the first scenario above of somebody attractive walking in to a bar.  You nudge your friend but the reaction isn’t as you expected as it turns out that person is their friend, work colleague or (worst case scenario) their sister/brother. If you weren’t aware of this then should you feel guilty for not getting the reaction you expected? The nudge was meant in good faith with no apparent expectations and you may never know the unknown back story. 

This is a benevolent nudge with no apparent motive apart from just bringing something to somebodies attention then you just move on from there.  You could say it’s a stateless nudge – you don’t anticipate a major change in somebodies state or behaviour due to the nudge. If they change their thinking then all is good.  If not then all is still good. 

How about if you do want to create a change in somebodies behaviour, thinking or direction? A physical nudge could be a little too obvious and may seem like you are pushing them down a specific way of thinking or acting and will meet with some kind of cognitive dissonance.  If a person isn’t naturally inclined to act in a specific way because it could be against their internal thought processes, they could react with defiance, obstinance and perhaps anger.  This doesn’t help you, them or the overall situation.

This is where nudge theory comes in to play. The  name concept of ‘Nudge theory’ was presented in the by 2008 book, ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness’ and is based around how people make decisions based on which choices are available to them at that specific time and place.  The time and the place of the nudge is very important here as decisions can vary hugely between the amalgamation or delta between the two. A very simple example is where you try to nudge somebody to put their coat on as you want to head home. In winter this could be a simple nudge by putting on your own coat and subtlety saying ‘Brrrrr – it’s cold outside’. This won’t work as well in summer so you will need a nudge more relative to the situation such as your coat fell on the floor so you’ll put it on so nobody stands on it.  This is a bit of a trite example but you get the idea.  Make the nudge fit the situation. 

This is very different to some techniques which try to ingrain new ways of thinking in people though obvious education and enforcement of ideas.  This is more akin to negative social influencing or brainwashing which involves changing a persons thoughts again their will.  This idea of using underhand and coercive methods to alter people’s thoughts or perceptions is not what we’re talking about here.

A nudge is more subtle and for the benefit of the person and, sometimes, for the benefit of others without detriment or benefit to the individual. 

Another good example is used in hotel bathrooms.  You are provided with nice clean and fresh towels and there is normally a piece of folded card on top of the stack of towels.  As it’s on top of the towels, you are naturally going to read this before moving or using the towels (nudge #1).  The card will read something similar to “We are helping to create a more sustainable environment by not changing your towels every day.  This saves the use of detergent and other chemical which can harm the environment.  We are so proud to be able to say that 90% of our customers agree and only request fresh towels every other day”.   There are two nudges here: the first mentions harming the environment which tend to make people read on and the second is that 90% of other customers didn’t ask for fresh towels everyday.  This makes you think “I don’t want to be in the 10% of people who who actively harming the environment!”.  

Another nudge is used in some gents toilets.  Without wanting to alienate 50% of the population who may not be too knowledgable on gents toilets, this nudge plays on slightly childish and/or competitive nature of us men. It’s very simple … put an icon of a fly at the bottom of the urinal. What’s the first thing a man will try to do? Yes, you’ve got it – try to pee on the fly.  This ensures that there is limited ‘overshooting’ of the urinal and keeps toilet floors slightly cleaner.

I hope you found the above interesting but you could now be asking yourself what this has to do with COVID-19.  Have a think about the things we are trying to change in peoples usual way of life then think of possible nudges to get people to alter their behaviour.