A Little Nudge

The Government’s Nudge Unit (or, to give it its correct title, the Behaviour Insights Team) has been in the news again recently. Their latest investigation involves an attempt to reduce the number of inappropriate calls to the 101 number (the number where one can report crimes, traffic accidents and minor offences). The problem which they are addressing is that 20% of calls to this number are classed as inappropriate and involve matters which are not of police concern, such as failure of the local council to empty the bins, or the high price of a restaurant meal. They found that delaying answering for 6 seconds reduced inappropriate calls by 75%.

Nudging people to behave takes many forms but one of the most successful is to make things easy for people. Thus healthy options are at the front in the cafeteria, many streamed TV programmes automatically go on to the next episode and, more importantly, British workers are automatically enrolled in work-place pensions unless they opt out.

The Nudge Unit was established in 2010 to help government departments improve their success rates in diverse areas by taking account of the way people behave. For example an experiment in vending machines in Australia resulted in a 20% switch from the most sugary drinks to alternatives simply by labelling the most sugary ones in red. Writing letters to the GP surgeries prescribing the most antibiotics, telling them that neighbourhood surgeries prescribed less, resulted in a 3% fall in prescriptions.


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