nudge nudge, think think

You've heard bits and pieces about nudge but what is it really all about and can it be a part of your communications solutions?

by GUEST EDITOR Carolyne Mitchell

Last month I was lucky enough to host a behavioural economics workshop for Scottish public sector comms teams. The day was run by Stephen Young, senior lecturer in Economics at Brighton University Business School and Viv Caisey a social marketer who's done fab stuff with health and food standards around the country.

Behavioural economics, better known as nudge is one of those tricky concepts that is just emerging from academia into the world for people to apply to their own causes.

I've been following the work of the Cabinet Office Behavioural Insights Unit for over a year now and have applied some of their research to a rent arrears campaign at South Lanarkshire Council. It worked well and produced results for very little effort or outlay.

So I started searching for another Masters I could do online but found nothing. I did, however find Stephen who couldn't think of anything I could study but he did offer to run a workshop. So we invited 29 other interested comms folk along, had one of the best workshops I've ever attended, expanded a few minds and got people thinking. One person commented that it was the best seminar they've been to yet, others went away wondering how to apply the theory back at base and me? Well, I think my head exploded!

So what's nudge all about?

Basically it's about changing behaviour – eating a better diet, stopping smoking, paying rent on time, shifting channels, anything. Traditional economics doesn't work because it assumes we all make rational decisions. We won't eat too much, we won't take drugs, we won't speed on the motorway, we'll pay our taxes, we'll pay our rent, we won't get into debt. Well, I think that list proves that very few of us think rationally when it comes to life choices.

Behavioural economics mixes economics with social psychology, sociology, a few other ologies and plain common sense. Some of you may be thinking, 'It sounds like social marketing', but it really isn't. Viv's part of the workshop was to highlight the differences. Social marketing is about changing minds and behaviour while nudge is purely about behaviour. The main thing about nudge is that there should always be a cheap/free way of opting out of the behaviour we're trying to encourage and nudge can never be mandatory. Social marketing campaigns usually involve a big budget and long term work. Nudge can cost next to nothing and take no time at all. It can mean as little as rewording a letter, adding a nudge strap line to a campaign poster, making plates in canteens smaller, putting fruit at eye level or reducing the number of holes in salt shakers.

Some of them aren't sexy – changing paracetamol packaging to blister packs to reduce suicide rates.

Some of them are funny – painting a target in a urinal to help with aim.

Some of them are downright ingenious – signs at a disused quarry in Derbyshire pointing out the dead animals, cars and pollutants in the water, as well as the itching, fungal infections and stomach problems swimming there would cause didn't stop people swimming in it. Councillors wanted to spend a fortune filling it in or fencing it off. The nudge? Black dye in the water made the Blue Lagoon less appealing and now no one dips a toe in the murk. Genius.

Nudge is all around us. It isn't a silver bullet and it has a long way to go to prove itself in the real world. But isn't it worth a try?

Stephen and Viv gave me the tools to try it out, to plan and to evaluate. They gave us a reading list, opened our eyes and fired us up.

If you have particular issues in your patch they'll tailor the workshop to suit and I'd urge you to do what we did and open it up to colleagues from across the public sector.

One of our cohort is thinking of getting Stephen and Viv up for another session with services in her council she was so impressed by the power of behavioural economics.

You'll get Stephen by email - stephenyoungorguk@gmail.com

Check it out – I nudge you to.

Carolyne Mitchell is information officer at South Lanarkshire Council. She also blogs here.

Image via Flickr creative commons