Image courtesy of flickr user Alan Stanton

Nudge, gently!

By Nicola Eyles, 

It is obvious to all of us that there is more to our decision-making process than logical, reasoned thought. Otherwise, why would anyone, for example, start smoking today when there is so much awareness and knowledge of the damage it causes to health and the expense involved.

As communications professionals, we need to understand how people make decisions to inform better and more effective communications, which ultimately influence behaviour in a positive way. For this reason, the CIPR Marketing Communications Group recently organised a seminar on nudge theory.

If logic and reason don’t always underpin our choices, what does and how can we influence it?

Professor Jeff French, a world expert and author on the application of behaviour change theory for social marketing, explained to the audience how ‘knowing doesn’t necessarily mean doing’ and that legislation and education aren’t always effective in driving behavioural shifts.

He described the two systems in the mind at play, as proposed in the book Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman. Two parallel and interconnected ways of making sense of the world and making decisions – System 1 operates automatically and quickly, with little or no effort and no sense of voluntary control and System 2 allocates attention to the effortful mental activities that demand it, including complex computations and logical decision making. We spend most of our time under System 1 dominance, and it’s in this system that we are most susceptible to influence.

Matt Battersby, Managing Director of H+K Smarter, Hill+Knowlton Strategies, and the second speaker of the evening, picked up on French’s discussion around System 1 and System 2 thinking with a real-life study into the decision making of judges. The study showed a pattern to when parole decisions were favourable and when they were not, correlating with the judges’ break times – “You are much more likely to be granted parole the hour after breakfast than the hour before lunch or afternoon tea!”

The importance of this study is that it highlighted not only that judges are subject to the same influences and behaviour patterns as the rest of us but also that they have no awareness of the influences they are subject to and the impact these have on their decisions. They all firmly believed that each parole decision was treated in the same way, with the same rigours of rational decision making.

The point being that we are all humans and we all act in seemingly irrational ways, it isn’t something that we leave at the door when we go to work, and it isn’t something that only applies to consumers.

French went on to explain Richard Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein’s work on Libertarian Paternalism and how “often people’s preferences are unclear and ill-formed, and their choices can inevitably be influenced by default rules, framing effects, and starting points and in these circumstances, a form of paternalism cannot be avoided.” This is where the concept of nudge stems from: “We know people can be influenced by a whole range of things, not just logical decision making, so when we set up the choice systems for social policy or economic choices we know we can design these in such a way to ‘nudge’ people in a particular direction.”

So, what is nudge?

French explained it as, “one small part of the behavioural insights coming from social psychology” and that Thaler and Sunstein’s work characterised nudges as “positive or having only minor penalties, avoidable, passive and easy, requiring little effort and low cost to both the person and the organisation utilising them.” Like every other tactic, however, there are negatives. It is a top-down approach that is controlling, does not engage or empower and is singular in its action so does nothing to address causality. If you are easy to nudge one way, what’s to stop you being just as easy to nudge back!

French asserted the same point echoed by both the other speakers of the evening; Matt Battersby and Ann-Marie Droughton-Hall. “There isn’t a little golden bullet to solve all your problems and there never will be one. What there is, is a golden process that you have to go through to work up to getting the right mix of interventions, that’s what good professional practice is. We need theory, science, evidence, insight and strategic long-term planning.”

Battersby agreed, saying: “We talk about nudge but it’s much broader than nudge. It isn’t about behavioural science but sciences! What we are looking at here is the intersection of economics, sociology, neuroscience, psychology. All these things together provide us with the insight that helps create smarter, more effective communications. What we need to avoid though is ‘nudge-wash’…we will discredit ourselves as an industry if we think we can read a few books and start applying some of this stuff to campaigns. We need behavioural scientists, people who have studied this or practiced it in the field.”

To help communications professionals apply these behavioural sciences and bring together the insight from all these different disciplines, Hill+Knowlton has created a model that pulls together the seven key, simplest behavioural insights as they see them, that can be used within communications. Battersby introduced the audience to the SMARTER™ model which incorporates insights under the following categories: Social norms, Messenger, Actor, Risk + Rewards, Tell stories, Emotion and Reciprocity.

Battersby sees social norms as one of the most powerful and misused behavioural triggers in communications at present. He explained, for example, how social norms were used in the Robert Cialdini experiment around re-using hotel towels. Traditional persuasive messaging was focused on helping save the planet by informing guests about the impact of their behaviour on the environment (a nice logical and rational argument for re-using the towels) but by introducing the element of social norms and drawing an association between the current guest’s behaviour and those of others, the re-use level increased by 25%. Telling them the majority of guests who stayed in the same room they were in re-used their towels and this increased further to 33%.

He went on to make the point that sometimes in our communications campaigns we are attracting the media with the message but not moving the behaviour because we are framing it in the wrong way when it comes to this ‘herd behaviour’. “Sometimes the biggest mistake we make in comms is normalising the bad… you want to communicate the positive social norm.” For example, one important issue at present is that young people are not saving enough for their pension. The messages employed always focus on how much this is a big problem but what a young person hears is ‘no-one else is saving for their pension, so why should I’.

The final speaker of the evening, Ann-Marie Droughton-Hall of 23red – known for its work on Stoptober, took the audience through several highly successful campaigns that employed this thinking and aimed at normalising the positive behaviour for a given issue to drive change. 23red is a creative agency that works to change behaviour for the better. Their approach is that in today’s fast-paced society, doing is more powerful than feeling or thinking. Getting someone to do something with or for your brand is not only easier but it has the power to change attitudes instantly. They call it Do.Feel.Think.™

Droughton-Hall illustrated the effectiveness of the agency’s approach with several campaigns within the public health sector, the most recent being about increasing the numbers of young people on the NHS Organ Donor Register. So how did they go about normalising organ donation amongst 18 – 34s to drive registration and conversation?

They partnered with Tinder, the dating app, and various celebrities. By taking the campaign to the audience they were trying to reach, they were able to engage with them and deliver a message that was attractive and yet disruptive to their normal behaviour within this space as well as challenging the social norms around organ donation. They played on the ‘it’s a match’ similarities between normal Tinder behaviour and organ donation to make the audience think about the issue and sign up to the register after the initial act of doing – swiping right to accept the match. They achieved a nearly 100% uplift in registrations during the campaign timeframe.

The evening concluded with the comment from Droughton-Hall that ‘there is a whole suite of tools at our disposal, beyond nudges, and when you start to have a great ambition around that and start to use some of the frameworks out there you can build some really interesting campaigns that actually deliver really fantastic impact.”

For further reading around the subject the following books were recommended by the speakers:

Thinking, Fast and Slow by Daniel Kahneman

Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein

Rip it Up by Richard Wiseman

Nicola Eyles is Marine and Offshore Global Head of Brand & External Relations, Lloyd’s Register and a CIPR Marcomms Group Committee member.

Image courtesy of flickr user Alan Stanton


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