Nudge me, nudge me not!

The dictionary says to nudge is to prod someone gently with one’s elbow to attract attention. However, Richard Thaler winner of the Nobel Prize for Economics this year, took this verb to a whole different level. He saw it as influencing people to make choices that are better for them in the long term. His work in behavioural economics has found fans among many, including governments.

In the book named “Nudge” co-authored with his colleague Cass Sunstein, they discuss the need for “libertarian paternalism”. In simple words, it is to drive a certain behaviour among people, not through force, but by creating choices that get people to act as per their will.

I first heard of his work while on a consulting engagement with the government of South Australia. The Department of Transport had identified a 90-day project that had to come up with innovative ways to reduce the errant behaviour among drivers in the 17-23 age group. These are new drivers and the instances of bad behaviour was significantly higher. The measures in place were all penalties, which did not seem to deter the poor driving habits. So, a group of people along with a behavioural scientist came back with a proposal to reward good behaviour among the drivers in this age group, instead of penalizing poor behaviour. The incentives were non-monetary- eg. Mobile phone credits for X weeks of good behaviour, Pizza coupons for a group of 5 for Y weeks of good behaviour etc. The pilot program which was designed to test this idea was encouraging with increase in good driving habits. A proposal was made to formalize such a program in large scale.

The central principle of the “nudge theory” is that one can architect the choice in a way that leads to a desired behaviour. The focus of Thaler’s work is in the areas of behavioural finance, but as I started reading the book more recently, I realized that there are many instances of “choice architecture” all around me. Some were designed by me and some influenced by others. Here are a few examples.

The Shoe Rack: One of the biggest challenges I had at home was getting everyone to leave their shoes inside the shoe rack. Despite having multiple shoe racks, most of the footwear was left outside these racks, behind the door etc. It bothered me to no end. When I moved homes, I got the entrance hallway designed in such a way that one couldn’t get into the house without leaving the shoes in the shoe rack. If anyone forgot to put them in, others coming into the home would trip on these shoes and be forced to put them into the shelf. A small “nudge architecture” that encouraged a desired behaviour.

Empty Cookie Jar: I am one of those people who has lot of will, but no power when it comes to junk food. My mind would say no, but my hands and mouth have a mind of their own. The only way I can maintain any power over my will is to not have any junk food within 100 meters of my hand. The rule at home is to never buy or stock up on junk food. The only available food is healthy, within my hands reach and one that I can neither eat too much nor feel guilty about eating. I could say this is a “nudge me not”

The Tick Mark: My 11year old son learns music. He is reasonably good and enjoys it. However, he rarely ever practices enough to hone his skills. Any number of instructions, threats and cajoling to practice go unheeded. I developed a new system. Now he schedules his practice time for the week based on his school and other classes, on his own. At the beginning of the week he writes down the days and time when he will practice his piano, violin and vocal lessons. He then “ticks” off the ones that he has completed. One should never underestimate the power of a tick mark. It is one of the best nudges one can think of!

I wish I could find ways to nudge my son to keep his clothes and books organized. The day I figure that out, I wouldn’t mind filling up my cookie jar!

Health and Financial “nudgers”: Couple of years ago, my husband and I engaged a fitness coach to help us get fitter and healthier. All his methods are classic examples of “nudge”. By signing up with him we had already “opted-in” for whatever he was proposing. The only opt-out option was to choose to do lesser than the goals he made us set. However, the nudges were intelligently designed to help us get better at whatever we did, encouraging us to do more. Similarly, a few years ago I chose to have a financial advisor to help me with managing my investments. This has helped me stay on course of my investment plan with a discipline that I would have found immensely difficult on my own. Having professional “nudgers” is helpful.

While I can see many such instances in my personal life, I also see them in professional set ups.

No Doors No Printers: One of our clients engaged us to help them build a desired culture at their workplace. “Openness” was a value they wanted to embody in everyday action. Their office space however was mostly closed rooms. Most hardly stepped out of their offices, resulting in very little informal interaction and openness. While designing the new office, a conscious choice of having no closed cabins and no individual printers in the office, was made. This now forces everyone to step out and meet others. Every trip to the printer is an opportunity for a walkway meeting and build bonds informally. Physical architecture is a key to building desired culture.

The Assignment Rule: In every leadership program that we facilitate, the participants have to commit to completing assignments on a weekly basis. The assignments are always about applying the tools and frameworks learnt in the face to face session, to real life issues. Some complain about the pressure this creates, however at the end of the program everyone is pleased that the assignments nudged them to think, apply and learn to do things differently.

I could write many such instances of choice architecture. This blog is also a result of a nudge that I created for myself. At the beginning of the year, I set up a goal to write one blog a month. To have a tick mark against October 2017 is highly satisfying.

I would love to hear about such choice architecture that you have set up yourself or experienced around you. Please share and help all of us learn more.






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