Britain shapes good citizens with a gentle ‘nudge’

Updated 01 February 2013
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Britain shapes good citizens with a gentle ‘nudge’

It’s a riddle faced by cash-strapped governments the world over — how can people be persuaded to make decisions that leave them healthier and happier, while saving taxpayers’ money at the same time?
In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron has set up a team to test out the theory that a gentle prod in the right direction can go a long way.
Nicknamed the “nudge unit,” the Behavioral Insights Team has been quietly reshaping a swath of policies to coax Britons into behaving — whether that means paying their taxes on time, saving energy or quitting smoking.
By tinkering here and adjusting there, the nudge unit claims that it will have saved Britain £300 million ($483 million, 361 million euros) over the next five years — taking even its director David Halpern by surprise.
“We’re steadily surprised by how well it works,” Halpern told AFP in an interview at Cameron’s Downing Street residence, where the 12-strong team has been based since its creation in 2010.
“There’s more demand than we can meet. We’ve had pretty much every government department coming to us saying, ‘Can you help us with this policy?’ — and we’re getting a lot of requests from other governments.”
The nudge unit’s favorite tactics involve making it easier for people to do what the government wants it to do — and, perhaps less obviously, telling people what their peers are doing. In one of its most successful examples, the team began sending letters to late taxpayers which casually mentioned that most people in their town had already paid.
This psychological trick boosted payments by 15 percent, adding £30 million to the government’s coffers in a year.
“We’re very social creatures. When you see other people doing things, you tend to do the same,” Halpern explained.
In another experiment, the team looked at how to encourage people to save energy by insulating their attics — something that 40 percent of homeowners have yet to do, despite years of government subsidy schemes.
Research revealed that for many Britons the main obstacle wasn’t the cost — it was that they used their attics to hoard junk they were too lazy to clear out.
“So we started offering a loft clearance scheme,” said Halpern. “Once we did that, we got a three-fold increase in uptake.”
Other governments are so interested in the nudge unit that it has begun selling its expertise abroad, helping Australia’s New South Wales state and another undisclosed government to set up their own.
Inspired by behavioral economists such as Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, the US duo who turned “nudge” into a political buzzword with their 2008 book of the same name, Cameron set up the unit immediately after coming to power almost three years ago.
He is not the only world leader to embrace the theory. Thaler has advised several governments including Denmark and France, while Sunstein held a senior post in US President Barack Obama’s administration until last August.
There are countless international examples of nudges. Famously, Schiphol Airport in the Netherlands dramatically cut spillages in its men’s toilets by etching fake insects into the urinals, giving passengers something to aim at.
But Britain has taken the idea a step further by setting up a government office dedicated to the art of nudging, a move Halpern said was heavily influenced by the feeble state of the British economy.
“When there’s no money around, these approaches start to look especially attractive,” he told AFP.
But the use of nudge theory by governments has been met with suspicion from some corners.
One Australian columnist described it as a “toxic import” that should not be welcomed by New South Wales.
“Instead of democratic debate and argument, it opts for subliminal psychological techniques and manipulation,” Frank Furedi argued in The Australian.
British critics have also suggested that that nudging is a sneaky form of state intervention — and one that does not sit easily with Cameron’s Conservative party, who often deride interference by the “nanny state.”
But the nudge unit denies that there is anything underhand about its techniques.
“Almost all policy is about understanding how people behave and trying to encourage them to behave differently,” argued Halpern’s deputy, Owain Service.
The nudge unit says it simply encourages people to make good decisions for themselves — and Halpern happily admits that this doesn’t always work.
In another loft insulation scheme, Britons were offered discounts if they clubbed together with their neighbors.
“People really liked the idea, but they didn’t actually have that conversation with their neighbors,” Halpern laughed. “It might work in a country other than the UK, where people talk to their neighbors a bit more.”


Cosby jury to decide: Serial rapist or con artist’s mark

Updated 31 min 10 sec ago
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Cosby jury to decide: Serial rapist or con artist’s mark

  • Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault
  • Before going off to deliberate, jurors will hear both sides rehash the case in lengthy closing arguments

NORRISTOWN: The jury that will start deliberating Bill Cosby’s fate on Tuesday has heard the comedian described over the past two weeks both as a “serial rapist” and a con artist’s victim.
They have seen a parade of accusers testify that the man once revered as “America’s Dad” had a secret life of drugging and violating women. And they have heard from a witness who says his chief accuser talked about framing a high-profile person to score a big payday.
Now, seven men and five women who have been kept in a suburban Philadelphia hotel, away from family, friends and daily routines, will get to have their say in the first big celebrity trial of the #MeToo era.
“You now have all of the evidence,” Judge Steven O’Neill told them after Cosby’s side rested on Monday without calling the 80-year-old comedian to the stand. “Try to relax, so that you’re on your game tomorrow.”
Jurors could be in for a marathon.
Before going off to deliberate, they will hear both sides rehash the case in lengthy closing arguments, and they will get O’Neill’s instructions in the law.
Cosby is charged with three counts of aggravated indecent assault — all stemming from Andrea Constand’s allegations that he knocked her out with three pills he called “your friends” and molested her at his suburban Philadelphia mansion in January 2004.
Each count carries a sentence of up to 10 years in prison.
Cosby has said he gave Constand 1½ tablets of the over-the-counter cold and allergy medicine Benadryl to help her relax before what he called a consensual sexual encounter.
The jury in Cosby’s first trial weighed the evidence for five days without reaching a verdict.
This time, both sides have given the retrial jury much more to consider.
Prosecutors were able to call five additional accusers who testified that Cosby also drugged and violated them — including one woman who asked him through her tears, “You remember, don’t you, Mr. Cosby?“
Cosby’s new defense team, led by Michael Jackson lawyer Tom Mesereau, countered with a far more robust effort at stoking doubts about Constand’s credibility and raising questions about whether Cosby’s arrest was even legal.
The defense’s star witness was a former colleague of Constand who says Constand spoke of leveling false sexual assault accusations against a high-profile person for the purpose of filing a civil suit. Constand got a civil settlement of nearly $3.4 million from Cosby.
Both juries also heard from Cosby himself — not on the witness stand, but via an explosive deposition he gave in 2005 and 2006 as part of Constand’s civil suit against him. In it, Cosby acknowledged he gave the sedative quaaludes to women before sex in the 1970s.
Cosby’s lawyers devoted the last two days of their case to travel records they say prove he could not have been at his suburban Philadelphia home in January 2004. They argue that any encounter there with Constand would have happened earlier, outside the statute of limitations.
Cosby’s private jet records and travel itineraries produced by Cosby’s lawyers do not show any flights in or out of the Philadelphia area in January 2004, but they have large gaps — a total of 17 days that month in which Cosby was not traveling, performing or taping TV appearances.
District Attorney Kevin Steele noted that the records do not account for other ways Cosby could have gotten to Philadelphia.
“You can’t tell us whether he got on a commercial flight,” Steele said, questioning a defense aviation expert. “You can’t tell us whether he got on a train. You can’t tell us whether he got in a car and drove to Philadelphia.”
The Associated Press does not typically identify people who say they are victims of sexual assault unless they grant permission, which Constand has done.