Business book review: Nudge

21 Dec 2011 by BusinessTraveller
Within the first few pages, this book had cleared up something I had wondered about for years. It is in the introduction, and is a story about the urinals at Schiphol Airport, “There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased. According to the man who came up with the idea, it works wonders. “It improves the aim,” says Aad Kieboom. “If a man sees a fly, he aims at it.” Kieboom, an economist, directs Schiphol’s building expansion. His staff conducted fly-in-urinal trials and found that etchings reduce spillage by 80 percent.” I’d always supposed the fly to be just another example of the eccentric Dutch. In fact, it is a perfect example of the “Nudge” theory. Put up a sign saying “Aim straight” and a percentage of people will do the exact opposite. But present them with a fly to aim at…..  (Have a look – there’s a whole website on this at urinalfly.com.) There’s lots of this sort of thing in the book, whose aim, the authors make clear is to “steer people’s choices in directions that will improve their lives”. They call it “Libertarian Paternalism”. Libertarian because in general they believe people should be free to do what they like. Paternalism because they believe that “... a policy is ‘paternalistic’ if it tries to influence choices in a way that will make choosers better off, as judged by themselves.” Our government here in the UK apparently has a “nudge unit”, designing what the authors here call “Choice architecture”, which basically means framing choices in a way that makes it obvious which we should choose  if we are to benefit from them. The book is a strange combination of interesting anecdotes, and some quite dull science. The framing of choices, however, is useful, and can help in business. Say you have a recycling bin in the office alongside the normal bin. One is labelled “Recycling” but the other has no label. Put on a “Landfill” label, and people think twice about whether their rubbish should go in or not. Perhaps they increase the amount they put in recycling. Perhaps ultimately they produce less waste. What’s for sure is that once you’ve read this book, you’ll see these little nudges everywhere you look. I think my only quarrel with it is that much of what it thinks are “nudges” qualify as simple smart marketing by those who are looking to influence our behaviour one way or another. Perhaps it only qualifies as a nudge if it’s for a good cause. Tom Otley
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