A Friendly Nudge

A theory which holds that hints and positive reinforcement can affect people's behaviors.
A Friendly Nudge

Can governments and other organizations use behavioral science to “nudge” people to adopt better behaviors, such as exercising, recycling, saving money, and disposing of their trash? Researchers at Warwick Business School in the U.K. think so—if they rely on the principles of "nudge theory," which holds that hints and positive reinforcement can affect people's behaviors.

In September, the school will welcome teams from all over the world to participate in a two-day Nudgeathon, where they will work on a real social problem using nudge theory concepts. The problem will be suggested by the Behavioural Insights Team, an organization set up by the U.K. government to inves­tigate ways to deploy behaviorial science to improve society.

The winning idea could be used by the Behavioural Insights Team or other organizations, says Nick Chater, a professor in the Behavioural Science Group at WBS. The first prize is £500 (about US$780), with £250 (US$390) for runners-up. Teams also will participate in workshops on cre­ativity, behavioral science, and design.

The school also has joined forces with the Clean Up Britain (CLUB) campaign designed to combat Britain’s litter problem. In 2010, 48 percent of Britons admitted to dropping trash, which cost £1 billion (US$1.5 billion) to clean up. CLUB and WBS plan to use nudge theory to change the socially undesirable behavior of litterers. WBS doctoral students Julia Kolodko and Umar Taj will provide research insights to the campaign.

“The only sustainable solution to Britain’s chronic litter problem is to get people to stop dropping it,” says Jeremy Paxman, a broadcaster who is heading the campaign. “Like drunk driving, dropping litter has to be made socially unacceptable.”

Most people litter because it's con­venient, because others are doing it, or because they simply don't think about it, says Daniel Read of the Behavioural Science Group at WBS. "We hope to use behavioral insights to change how people think about littering and, more importantly, how they behave.”