Britain shapes good citizens with a gentle ‘nudge’



Agence France Presse

Published — Saturday 2 February 2013

Last update 1 February 2013 9:46 pm

| نسخة PDF Print News | A A

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.”

What's happening around Saudi Arabia

Huge projects change the faces of cities and great ambitions help create such projects. Madinah had its date with a quantum leap to usher in a new era of urban development. Such huge projects help achieve formidable civilization advancements and sign...
RIYADH: The Japanese ambassador to the Kingdom, Noriheiro Okoda, has held a meeting with Hashem Abdullah Yamani, president of the King Abdullah City for Atomic and Renewable Energy (K.A.CARE), and discussed bilateral cooperation in the fields of atom...
AL-BAHA: Forty three percent of Al-Baha cannot be developed easily because of the region’s mountainous terrain.This is the view of Khaled Al-Sayegh, undersecretary for construction at the municipality, who was speaking at an event held at the College...
JEDDAH: An official at the Council of Saudi Chambers said the council’s members are discussing a regulation to submit to the Ministry of Labor and other government agencies to deny a number of privileges to companies that force its labor to work unde...
ABHA: With many families wanting new furniture during Ramadan, furniture and interior decorating shops are raising prices to more than double what they were before the month.Homeowner Zaina Mohammed says she used to change her home furniture every Ra...
RIYADH: Saudi Commission for Tourism and National Heritage (SCTNH) President Prince Sultan bin Salman described the first visit by Custodian of the Two Holy Mosques King Salman to Madinah as “historic.”In his comments following the visit which saw th...
MADINAH: Economists expected the volume of investments in Madinah’s economies during the coming few years to reach SR500 billion.The forecasted growth in the population, to reach 2.6 million people after 25 years, and the number of visitors to 12.2 m...
JEDDAH: It seems that many Saudi families are gradually coming to terms with the new reality of living in apartments, as building villas is not possible due to shortage of appropriate land.With the increasing display of housing units by the Ministry...
RIYADH: Migrant rights advocacy group Migrante-Middle East (M-ME) has lambasted their country’s leadership over the claim that the number of overseas Filipino workers are declining due to sustained economic growth in the Philippines.The group has cal...
RIYADH: A charitable foundation called “Smile” will be launched on Sunday night at the Al-Hokair Land in the Saudi capital to make people happy. “The foundation will be launched to make Saudi Arabia a center of smiles,” well-known television host and...
MAKKAH: The Kingdom has seen a sharp rise in the number of Umrah pilgrims to around 6 million from 1.5 million in the last 16 years. Moreover, the number of pilgrims overstaying their visas has come down to about 1 percent. The Ministry of Haj has be...
RIYADH: The King Khalid Foundation (KKF) said here recently that it has financed small enterprises (SMEs) run by 130 widows in some of the Kingdom’s provinces.KKF hosted an iftar party last week for local media at its headquarters in Riyadh at which...
JEDDAH: Prince Abdullah bin Abdul Aziz bin Musaed, governor of the Northern Borders province, has died.He will be buried after Taraweeh prayers in Jeddah on Saturday, the Royal Court said in a statement carried by the Saudi Press Agency. No other det...
RIYADH: The Ministry of Education has suspended all parallel education programs, except in medical and engineering specialties, as well as bridging programs for health diploma certificates.Education Minister Azzam Al-Dhakil gave directions to the rec...
RIYADH: The Cooperative Health Insurance Council said it had suspended operations of six medical insurance companies for violating health insurance regulations by issuing insurance policies without completing the required documentation and violating...

Stay Connected

Facebook