The Head, Nicola Huggett

The 'Nudge Unit'

I recently heard a very interesting talk by someone who understands exactly how to change people’s thinking and their actions in a quick and easy way. He is called David Halpern and he heads up a now, very successful, government-sponsored organisation called the Behavioural Insights team.

The work of this team follows the inspirational ideas of two American Social Scientists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who wrote a book in 2008 called ‘Nudge’ about how you can find behavioural science solutions to ordinary problems of human action or inaction.

Cass Sunstein happened to be a close university friend of Barack Obama and so his ideas gained a lot of credibility in a short space of time and many were adopted by the US government.

The results of what his team were able to achieve were so impressive that governments across the globe took the ideas on board and the Behavioural Insight Unit, or ‘Nudge Unit’ for short, was set up in the UK in 2010.

The principle of what the Nudge Unit can do for government is pretty simple. They look at how they might add a compelling reason to an ordinary official request; for instance, asking people to pay their parking tickets, sign up for a pension, or become an organ donor; the sort of official letters you might get through the post that often get ignored by everyone. Their principle is that if you make a request to someone that is easy, attractive, socially acceptable and timely, people are much more likely to do what they are asked. They use the acronym EAST. They have been hugely successful since David Halpern set up the unit in 2010, and the team have quadrupled in size.

Amongst its early successes, the unit recruited 100,000 more people each year to carry organ donor cards. They discovered that the most effective slogan to present to people renewing their car tax disc online was one that appealed to them personally – therefore when you signed up for a car tax disc, it asked you the question; "If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one?". This one simple addition to the form has persuaded so many more people to sign up to be an organ donor.

The unit team has been involved in many different areas. They have persuaded 20% more people to consider switching energy provider and doubled the number of army applicants. They found that if you put a smiley or sad face up by a mobile speed sign on a busy road, more people actually slow down to ‘earn’ the smiley face. You might well have seen one of those road signs as there are some around here.

Another initiative found that if job centre staff sent a text message including the Christian name to remind an unemployed person to attend an interview, and wished them good luck, attendance at interviews was raised by nearly 30%.

Reducing fraud and debt is one of the team’s longest-running and most successful projects; the unit previously claimed to have nudged forward the payment of £30m a year in income tax by introducing new reminder letters that informed recipients that most of their neighbours had already paid. It is amazing that that had such an effect, but it did. People do not like to be the odd one out. Overall, the Nudge Unit’s work with the tax office, HMRC, has brought in over £200m of extra payment and none of that has cost any extra money above the costs of the unit itself.

One of the most interesting points they make is that ‘friction costs’. If you make things just a little bit easier for people, at the right time, in a way that looks good to them and makes them feel like they will be the odd one out if they do not do it – they will probably do the right thing.

So, what can the nudge theory mean for us here at school? Well – this is all probably obvious now you are thinking about it.

We as teachers already use quite a bit of nudge theory on you – we always try to personalise our feedback, we try to get to know you and what helps you to work most effectively, and we do everything we can to encourage you to do your best. There are lots of nudge tactics at work here.

But you can also use nudge theory for your own benefit. Make things easy, attractive, socially acceptable and timely. You can really work hard on your handwriting and spelling to make it much easier for the examiner to read your work and give you the good mark that you ultimately deserve. You can make looking out for each other the social norm, and if you take the lead, as our anti-bullying charter said last term, then research shows that other people will follow you down that easier path of less resistance.

If you are asking for something, from a friend or a teacher, make sure you give people enough time to get the answer for you. Ask in the right way, politeness costs nothing, and you may well be surprised to see what others can be nudged into doing for you when you least expect it.

If you create friction, it is more difficult to get what you want and who would want to make life more difficult if they could avoid it? David Halpern and his team, which has gone from eight people to 60 in under 10 years, show us that understanding how to get the most out of people is probably the most important scientific skill we could have. I look forward to seeing you put some of that into action in the coming weeks.