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Episode 171: Nudge Nudge

Nudging and avoiding a nudge is quite important. If you've never heard that phrase outside of a Monty Python sketch you will do now. Because to nudge, in psychology, means to subtly influence someones behaviour, often without them being aware of it, by altering the environment slightly and is surprisingly successful.

The most famous test of it was done at an Amsterdam's Schiphol airport where they used a drawing of a housefly on the men's urinals to encourage the men to aim better. And it worked. It cut cleaning costs because the men were aiming in the right place to prevent splashing. There was 80% less spillage. Gross, but nudging like this works so much better than just sticking a sign up that says "Stand still while you urinate please."
This is because reading a sign and taking deliberate action uses conscious thought, and conscious thoughts are easy to override because by their very nature, they're conscious. You're making a conscious decision to stand still and urinate in the same spot and so it's just a likely that when you're making these conscious decisions you can choose to not.
So nudging is more subtle, it's almost outside of conscious awareness, it's the unconscious mind that's being nudged not the conscious mind. So many experiments use nudges to influence participants in some research. Whether it's because a large plate will make you eat more food or something more significant like getting people back into work before their self esteem gets any lower.

For 40 years the UK Job Centre have asked people who are unemployed "What did you do last week?" Turns out if you ask them "What are you going to do next week?" They get back into work sooner. Nudging really does work. That's why the UK government set up a unit called the Behavioural Insights Team headed by a psychologist called David Halpern to use nudge theory to improve government policy and save money and it does.
One amazing thing they did was change how the Job Centre sent messages about someones job interview. It's really common for people not to turn up at job interviews, for lots of different reasons, too many to go into in a 15 minute podcast episode. But only 1 in 10 would normally show up to their interview. Turns out if you treat someone as a human, they're more likely to think that they deserve a chance at getting a job. So instead of "Here is your automated text message telling you about your job interview" you send them a message that says "Hi Jeff it's Joan, I've got you an interview at B&Q on Friday at 1pm. Good luck!" The amount of people that turn up for their interview goes up by 270%.
The choice to go or not go was always there, just as the choice to choose an unhealthy snack over a healthier one in a supermarket is always there. But if the unhealthy one is on a higher shelf that we need to stretch for and the healthier one is right there in front of us, we are way more likely to choose the banana over the hob nobs. It's sometimes called choice architecture, and sounds a bit manipulative, and actually it is. But it's nothing new, governments have been nudging us to behave in certain ways for decades. Things go on in our environment that make it seem as if it's own own choice to do something when we're actually being nudged into it by someone else. That's why we have white lines down the centre of our roads, because prior to 1920 cars would go round corners and crash into each other. Our brain doesn't like effort, it likes decisions to be made easily and efficiently, our brain uses way more energy than other animals brains do. So it creates these unconscious decisions so as to conserve energy. And we need to know that that's how our brain works, so that we can manipulate ourselves.

If we can make decisions unconsciously that steer us to where we want to go then we've got more strength of mind to achieve even more. Like the supermarket experiments, Having a fruit bowl in your kitchen on a work surface and biscuits in a cupboard will mean you're more likely to choose the fruit if you're peckish. It's why the UK adopted the idea of having cigarettes hidden from sight in shops. So that you're not nudged into buying them. But shops are still going to try and nudge you, with their 3 for the price of 2 stuff, when you only wanted one anyway. And now you're walking out of a shop with 3 bottles of Lucozade that you don't know what to do with. And you haven't got the bus fair home.
You want to be nudged into doing things that help you not hinder you.
So if there's something you want to do what can you do to make it as easy for you as possible? If there's something you need to avoid, how can you make it more difficult to do it? If you know that journalling helps you with your mental health then make it easier to remember to do it. Keep a notebook on your pillow so you actually have to move it out of the way before you get into bed. Maybe you want to get up half an hour earlier so you can go for a run before work but past experience tells you that you'll just snooze the alarm and fall back to sleep. Then make it hard to do that. Put your alarm clock far enough away from your bed that you have no choice but to get up to turn it off. You're far less likely to snooze it and more likely to actually get up there and then. You still have a choice, but the default decision becomes the one you actually desire in the long run rather than the short term gratification that comes from putting it off.

Make it easy for yourself to become the version of you that you want to be. If you know that your smartphone contributes to you not achieving your goals, then deliberately keep it far away from you. Get into the habit of having it in a different room so that it's out of sight. Smartphones are a bit like bookmarks on your internet browser, right there for you to go straight to if you need to without any effort and if you something is a drain then it needs an extra step to do it so that you can catch yourself easier and say "Stop. What do I want to see happen right now?"

As is so often quoted “Do not wait to strike till the iron is hot; but make it hot by striking.” If there's anything you can do that nudges you in the right direction so that you can make the iron hot first then do it.

Even if all that means is getting a fruit bowl and putting your running shoes and jogging bottoms in plain sight ready for the next day. Or a post it note on your bed side table that says "You are good enough" sometimes that's all it takes to nudge you to where you need to be.