Insights on Marketing & Technology

How science is being used to influence our behavior

Do you ever feel you’re being influenced by things beyond your control? Well you’re not alone. In 2009 the UK government put together a special unit (the Behavioural Insights Team AKA the Nudge Unit), dedicated to using insights from behavioural economics and psychology to influence our behaviour. Although the Nudge Unit may sound like something from a bleak dystopian future, where our every action is monitored and controlled, it’s best not to judge the idea too hastily. So, let’s take a minute to get acquainted with the ‘nudge’…

  • By: Dr. Sarah Fox
  • Published: 11-06-2015

The idea behind the nudge stems from a simple fact about human behaviour: ‘no matter how smart a person is, many of the basic choices they make on a day-to-day basis will be purely impulsive with little or no logical basis‘. This may sound unusual, but if you think about it, it actually makes sense. Could you imagine how hard life would be if every mundane daily decision required deep contemplation? You’d probably never even make it out of bed in the morning!

The fast and the slow one
Scientists believe that our brains accomplish tasks by relying on two different systems or modes of thinking. System-one is a bit of an air head; it’s fast, automatic and emotional. Whilst system-two is like your inner professor; slow, ruminating and logical. It’s no secret that when it comes to important decisions, system-two is your best bet. But, we don’t always have the time or resources to engage this system, meaning that many of our everyday mental decisions are actually made ‘on the fly’ by system-one.

To test this hypothesis, try answering the following question:
A bat and ball cost £1.10. The bat costs £1 more than the ball. How much does the ball cost?

Can you hear system-one shouting out the answer ’10p’? This answer may instinctively feel correct, but with a bit of extra thought it’s easy to come to the correct answer of ‘5p’.

Yes, poor impulsive system-one has many flaws. It is heavily swayed by social pressure, easily tricked, and has a tendency to favour short-term pleasure over long-term success; and with these flaws comes a certain level of predictability. It is this predictability that is now being utilised by the government’s Nudge unit to influence our behaviour.
In the 2008 book Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness, behavioural scientists from the University of Chicago laid out guidelines on how to apply behavioural nudges to policy. Now, six years on, concepts from this work are being used across the world to influence everything from tax fraud to antisocial bathroom habits.

Here are a couple of examples:

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Sarah Fox

Sarah Fox

Sarah is a systems neuroscientist and she is interested in exploring how different parts of the brain interact. Sarah is the Founder and regular contributor of The Brain Bank, which is run by a group of scientists from Manchester, all of whom share a desire to communicate the amazing complexities of science with anyone interested enough to listen.

This post originally appeared on Thebrainbank.scienceblog.com

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