Sometimes we all need a little ‘nudge’ to help us make good decisions
It is bewildering to consider how a localized virus outbreak in China could have escalated into a crippling global pandemic in the space of a few weeks. The COVID-19 pandemic is the biggest, most tragic global health crisis in more than a century, and it has been apparent from the beginning that its virulence is fueled by the behavior of the masses.
But how can governments work with public-health officials, behavioral economists, epidemiologists and psychologists to “nudge” us into adopting better behaviors during the lockdown, such as safeguarding our physical and mental well-being, enhancing hygiene, managing relationships and friendships, dealing with anxiety, and much more besides? Nudging people into adopting favorable behaviors will help to determine the course of this pandemic.
Nudge theory was popularized by two American scholars: behavioral economist and Nobel Prize-winner Richard Thaler and Harvard legal scholar Cass Sunstein. Their seminal 2008 book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” discusses the importance of understanding the motivations and obstacles that influence people when they make decisions. Armed with this understanding, subtle nudges can be applied that influence positive behaviors and better life outcomes.
Governments have relied on nudge theory to design many successful and effective policies. Currently, 202 institutions around the globe use nudge theory or have established dedicated nudge units, including the governments of the UK, Denmark, Japan and the US, and international organizations such as the World Bank, the United Nations, the Organization for Economic Co-operation and Development, and the European Commission.
Nudge theory is used widely by policymakers to design better, more effective policies, services and programs. In one experiment, for example, scientists found that using the concept of “presumed consent” for organ donations, or automatically enrolling people in an organ-transplant register unless they object and opt out, made it more likely that they would donate their organs.
A report by the Behavioral Insights Team (BIT) in the UK Cabinet Office reveals how policymakers are using nudge theory to promote sustainable diets by introducing a suite of nudges to achieve this outcome, such as removing or reducing unsustainable foods from canteens in government offices, hospitals and schools, working with manufacturers and retailers to make plant-based meals more affordable and widely available, and promoting consumer awareness of the environmental issues surrounding sustainable diets.
In another project, the BIT team published a report on how to better support women affected by domestic violence by understanding the unique challenges and obstacles they face, proposing interventions that enable them to seek help and access services, designing appropriate services for them, and ensuring they do not return to abusive relationships.
During the COVID-19 pandemic, nudge theory has proved successful in shaping behaviors and had a positive effect on curbing transmission rates in some countries. It has helped inform governments about how to introduce effective social-distancing measures, craft powerful public-health messages on the risks of the disease and the safety precautions that can be taken, understand the needs of various population segments, understand the drivers of and barriers to adoption of favorable precautionary behaviors among people, and design public services that are safe and consistent.
The World Health Organization (WHO) acknowledges the effect of human behavior in managing pandemics, as outlined in its “Outbreak Communication Planning Guide.” The document is designed to help national governments communicate effectively during an outbreak by ensuring at-risk populations have the correct information they need to adopt behaviors that reduce transmission rates.
Currently, 202 institutions around the globe use nudge theory or have established dedicated nudge units, including the governments of the UK, Denmark, Japan and the US
For example, the WHO’s experience with the Ebola outbreak in West Africa revealed that high-risk behaviors were the driving force behind the acceleration of transmission rates in the region, responsible for 60 percent of cases in Guinea and up to 80 percent in Sierra Leone.
Examples of many nudges can be found during the coronavirus pandemic. As governments slowly begin to lift lockdown measures, those responsible for public spaces are having to think of creative ways to ensure social distancing is maintained, and nudge people to follow the “new normal” way of living.
For example, the Danish Government published guidelines for reducing social contact in various commercial settings, such as allocating four square meters of space for each customer and providing them with water and soap or hand sanitizers, ensuring employees maintain good hygiene habits and wear protective gear, and displaying informative posters with details of COVID-19 symptoms and appropriate conduct in public spaces,.
Restaurants are spacing out tables and placing transparent dividers between them to reduce the risk of contact between diners. In one particularly creative approach, Mediamatic Eten in Amsterdam built small greenhouses, each of which is designed to accommodate two diners. In addition, waiters wear face shields and carry food to tables on a wooden board to avoid any direct contact.
Some cafes and fast-food chains are using a pulley system to deliver food, ordered using contactless payment terminals, to customers. Many supermarkets have placed stickers on the floor to mark the appropriate social-distancing space between customers waiting in line, while others have introduced or expanded home-delivery services.
People have also been encouraged to migrate more of their lives and businesses online. For example, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention in the US issued guidelines advising employers to allow employees to work from home and take sick leave as soon as they feel ill.
Other examples include museums and art galleries offering virtual tours so people do not miss out on cultural experiences, fitness instructors posting workout videos online so that people can exercise and stay healthy during the lockdown, and chefs sharing their favorite healthy, or indulgent, meals.
By continuing to nudge people toward adopting the most favorable behaviors, in particular related to social distancing and good hygiene practices, we can put ourselves in the best position to reduce transmission rates of the virus and put an end to the threat it poses.
• Sara Al-Mulla is an Emirati civil servant with an interest in human development policy and children’s literature.