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Real life examples of nudge theory

July 3, 2019  |  Gayatri Koshy

People can be gently nudged towards a desired behaviour. This is what Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein demonstrated in their book “Nudge”. Using insights from behavioural economics and psychology, they showed that subtle changes to the “choice architecture” of society can trigger changes in individual behaviour.

Let’s have a look at real life examples of success:

Hit the spot

Urinals are not often treated with respect. Authorities at Schiphol international Airport in Amsterdam realised that if men could be encouraged to aim better while using urinals, their cleaning costs would come down. So they installed fly-shaped stickers in urinals. This helped men focus on something they would normally ignore – helping them aim better and avoid spillages. Spillages were estimated to have reduced by 80 per cent! By making a subtle change to the environment, they were successful at nudging men towards a behaviour that had a socially desirable outcome.

Organ donation

Less than a third of people in the UK are signed up to be organ donors, despite research suggesting that 9 out of 10 would be happy to be one. Countries where people are automatically enrolled into the register, unless they opt out, see only 10-15 per cent of the population actually opting out, thereby resulting in a larger pool of organ donors. Presuming consent can be seen as controversial, so the NHS has teamed up with DVLA to make it compulsory for people to answer whether they want to be an organ donor or not when they apply or reapply for a license online. This assumes that people would choose to be donors if they gave it some thought, when usually they tended to put off making this decision. Over half of those now agreeing to go on the donor register opt in via the DVLA process, demonstrating the success of this intervention.

Little black bin

Under EU directives, the UK needs to recycle half of all household waste by 2020. In an effort to reduce the amount of waste going to landfill, some local authorities have begun to roll out smaller bins for general waste and supply more recycling bins and food waste containers. The reduced size of the general waste bin is also intended to nudge people into thinking a little bit more about what they can recycle and thereby increase the amount of household waste being recycled. South Gloucester council have reported an increase in recycling and a significant reduction in landfill costs since roll out.

Pay your taxes

When we need to make a decision about something, say for example which restaurant to go to for dinner, we may look to see what the popular choice is. We take cues from other people’s behaviour. Making use of this insight, HMRC sent out letters encouraging people to pay their tax debts, with some letters also stating that 9 out of 10 people in the area had already paid their tax. People who received letters highlighting the social norm of the area were 15 per cent more likely to pay their taxes than those who received letters only reminding them to pay their taxes without suggesting what other people in the area do.

Reducing salt intake

Research carried out by Gateshead council found that customers of takeaway fish and chips shops had huge amounts of salt with their fish and chips. Sometimes up to half their daily allowance of salt in one serving of fish and chips. They also found that many takeaways were using flour shakers for holding and dispensing salt, having as many as 17 holes! So the council distributed salt shakers with 5 holes to takeaways across the area free of charge hoping that this low-cost nudge would reduce the amount of salt people added to their fish and chips. We still don’t know whether this initiative has reduced salt levels of people living in Gateshead, but controlled experiments have found that the 5-holed shaker delivers 34% of the salt delivered by the 17-holed shaker. This idea has been adopted by many other councils across the UK.