Ever heard of 'The Nudge Unit'? It's a specialist team formed by the British government to persuade its citizens to do what their political masters want them to do. The Telegraph reports:
Chalk up another success to the Behavioural Insights Team. Since 2009, this handful of academics has been working, largely without fanfare, to subtly alter the ways we act, look after ourselves and obey the law.
Known colloquially as The Nudge Unit, the team that was once viewed as a “nutty indulgence” at the heart of David Cameron’s government recently had its tenure renewed, after an 18-month probationary period.
As a consequence, it will now be at the centre of initiatives on everything from job seeking to anti-smoking. And David Halpern, director of the nine-person unit, has been tasked with turning theory into government method.
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... so far at least, their results have been impressive. When the unit advised the HMRC to change the wording on income tax letters, for example, it resulted in an extra £200million being collected on time. Another experiment with the British Courts Service used personalised text messages to remind people to pay their fines on time. The result? Bailiff interventions were reduced by 150,000, saving around £30million.
At the unit’s heart is a simple premise. Instead of using clunky legislation, or the blunderbuss of regulations, to threaten people into action, government policy can better be executed by employing small, clever prompts. Combining economics with psychology, these “nudges” not only foment a more responsible population, but also make us as individuals feel happier and more informed about the choices we make. In short: you steer people towards better decisions by presenting choices in different ways.
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The unit’s work is described by them as “libertarian paternalism”, a phrase coined in the 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Chicago University professor Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein (now required reading for the Coalition front bench). And yet while their language might sometimes seem worryingly close to management-speak – using “choice architecture” to create “rational economic optimisers” – it belies some basic common sense. And some basic human instincts, too: our impulses for embarrassment, pride and the desire to fit in. “You make it attractive, you make it social and you make it timely,” explains Halpern.
These tenets extend across less benign areas too. After a spike in car thefts, a police force ran a campaign to encourage people to park their cars in garages. When it didn’t work, they realised why: as with lofts, most people’s garages are full of junk, which means they can’t park their cars. So the police placed skips on each road, with a notice saying they’re free for dumping garage rubbish. “Hey presto – the skips were filled, the cars were put away and car thefts went down,” he recalls. “That’s the lesson we’re learning — make it easy for people. Sounds obvious, but often that isn’t what we do in government.”
And similar basic psychology triggers other responses. Car tax has proved another successful trial. Last year the unit suggested the DVLA send out a letter to non-payers with plainer English with a banner headline suggesting “pay your tax or lose your car”. This alone doubled the number of people paying the tax; when the letter was personalised with a photo of the car in question, it tripled.
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The unit certainly has its fans abroad. One staff member has been seconded to help the New South Wales government in Australia, and there is interest in the unit’s methodology in France, Canada and Saudi Arabia.
There's more at the link.
Does anyone know whether a US equivalent of 'The Nudge Unit' exists? I'd be surprised if there wasn't one (or more) of them in Washington. If there is, I expect it/them to be hard at work on gun-control issues right now . . .