'Nudge Theory': The Quiet Revolution!

The UK Government have in recent years been funding and running the Behavioural Insight Team or rather, what is affectionately known as the 'Nudge Unit'. 

They have experimented on human behaviour by introducing small changes in the environment in order to alter the responses that people engage in and this seems to be really paying significant dividends.

'Nudges' have been around and in fact are around us but are there covertly in order for us to not consciously notice them. However, what is interesting is that our unconscious responses to them can have significant behavioural change.

During the mid 90's, scientists at Schipol Airport in Holland undertook a very famous experiment where they stuck little black flies in the latrines in the men's toilets.  They did this because men's abilities to urinate in a straight line were at best poor.  What happened next was absolutely amazing.  Men using the toilet as if by magic improved their shots and reduced spillage to such an extent that the cost of keeping the toilets clean reduced by an amazing 80%!!!

Toilet Flies

Isn't this just a drop in the ocean?

Apparently not! The 'Nudge unit' indicates that trials suggest that millions of pounds could be saved by using 'Nudge Theory' about how people behave to encourage them to pay taxes and fines, for example.


Tax office forms

They do this by emphasising social norms and using simpler language to increase compliance.  One case saved a local authority £240,000 on false council tax claims.

They have undertaken 8 trials with government departments and have shown that relatively minor changes to processes, forms and language used have resulted in significant positive impact on behaviour. 

In one exercise over 6 weeks, 140,000 people received various letters from the Inland Revenue.  One communication was their standard version whilst others read that 9 out of 10 people in Britain pay their tax on time, or really interestingly stressed that other people living in the same geographical area had already complied. 

The letters' emphasis on social proof in this way produced a 15% increase in response more than the standard document.  The Inland Revenue  indicates that this could help them to collect an extra £160 million a year, if this was borne out across the entire UK.

In another trial, doctors and dentists who had outstanding tax liabilities were told that their failure to pay in previous years would be regarded as an oversight but if they did not respond in the future, it would be seen as a conscious decision.  The letter also warned of the use of third party information to prove that they were defrauding the exchequer. This prompted a 14% higher response and £1 million pound in voluntary disclosures.

Other 'nudges' carried out include one by Manchester City Council that saved £240,000 on false council tax claims, another was on non payers of vehicle tax where letters using plain English such as ''Pay your tax or lose your car'' produced a doubling up of the numbers that paid but when they then added a photograph of the particular car the payments received tripled!  Even more simple than these was a tremendous initiative where a series of green footprints leading to rubbish bins were placed and this resulted in reduced littering by as much as 46% under controlled conditions.

Our sister company, Dentcom, has been advising within the NHS in previous years with a variety of ideas including: treatment plan presentations to different customers to suit their personality styles; how appointments are confirmed; the placement of mirrors in different parts of clinical waiting areas in order to reduce the likelihood of patients becoming angry and also the use of waiting rooms signs and how they're worded in order to reduce the amounts of patient no shows. Clients have found 'Nudge' to be particularly useful to augment conventional methods.

Would you like to know more about how we can perhaps help you or your organisation?

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Affinity Training is part of MINDMATIX LTD Company Registration No 07939825 137 Southdown Road, Portslade, East Sussex, BN41 2HJ Telephone 01273 423385 or email anthonyasquith@ntlworld.com