HIPPY IN THE CITY: are you being nudged?

Written by Hippy in the City on 12th July 2017

‘Words are sacred. If you get the right ones in the right order, you can nudge the world a little.’

Tom Stoppard, Author, Playwright


Nudging is now a well-known marketing concept. There’s a book, Nudge, by Sunstein and Thaler. There’s even a devoted “Nudge (or should that be “shove”?) Unit” at HM Treasury, to get us to pay our taxes on time. Nudging is about influencing people into making choices, usually (although not always) ones that have a positive impact on their future.  To me, it’s a lovely demonstration of how small actions and little words can make a huge difference to the world.

Here’s a good example: in 2016, children and adults in Wales were dying because there was a lack of organ donors. The Welsh Assembly moved to make Welsh residents organ donors by default to ensure that inertia on the issue resulted in a positive outcome for society, rather than a negative one. Since this change, donor opt-out rates remain low, there are more organs available for transplant and more lives are being saved.

I’m fascinated by nudging because it uses seemingly simple, almost obvious tactics like this to create change. It also helps us overcome a major challenge posed by our ‘always-on’ digital society: attention (or lack of it).

Let’s put it in context; Martin Hilbert, the information scientist, found[i] that daily two-way communication between two people had risen from around two newspaper pages-worth of words in 1986 to 20 entire newspapers by 2010. Easier to visualise, maybe, if you think about all the face-to-face and phone conversations, the texts, WhatsApp, Facebook posts and likes, LinkedIn, tweets and emails that you take part in each day. While the speed and amount of information we shared has rocketed year on year, there has been no matching increase in our brains’ processing power. We are limited by our biology.

In 1971, Nobel Laureate, Herbert Simon predicted that this wealth of information would lead to ‘a scarcity of whatever it is that the information consumes’. In short, that’s our attention. It’s now a valuable and scarce commodity, yet many organisations believe that the solution to a problem often lies in more communication to grab attention and help educate.

Undoubtedly, communications does have a place but you hear the cacophony swell. So nudging by others can help take the pressure off us to do the right thing for ourselves.

It’s interesting to see the UK Government using both communications and nudging in their Auto-Enrolment launch. Since 2008, employees not currently in a workplace pension scheme are automatically enrolled into one, having to actively opt out. The Department for Work and Pensions expected opt-out rates of around 28 per cent and the launch of Auto-Enrolment was supported by an extensive advertising and communications campaign to help educate and raise awareness. Positively, opt-out rates are only 10 per cent.

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I’ve been looking for other examples of nudging recently and came across this paper by the University of Sterling. It’s not always designed to encourage choices in our own interests, but clearly can be. Here are a few more ways the idea has been used:

  • Asking car insurance applicants to sign that the information that they provide is accurate at the beginning of the form rather than at the end, makes them provide more accurate information on the number of miles that they drive each year.
  • In Malawi, the offer of a small financial incentive [Find cost] increased the number of people coming to collect their HIV results. An approach that costs in the short-term sure, but one that helped limit the spread of the disease, vastly reduced future treatment costs and paid economic dividends over the longer term by keeping the workforce healthier.
  • Replacing spoons in salad bar with tongs reduced the uptake of unhealthy food by around 16 per cent.
  • In South Africa, inserting a photograph of an attractive woman on an advert for loans increased applications by 25 per cent. The same increase as were achieved by actually reducing the interest rates on those loans.

So, for those of us working in Sustainability, do we best achieve our goals though noise or nudge? I’m increasingly persuaded by the latter.

Could that translate into default impact-based auto-enrolment pension fund options? Just throwing it out there…


[i] Hilbert, M. (2012). How much information is there in the “information society”?, Vol 9-4, pp 8-12