Blue Line

It’s all a matter of positioning

August 20, 2013  By Dorothy Cotton

1236 words – MR

HEAD: It’s all a matter of positioning

I spent the morning sitting outside on my cottage deck reading. Curiously, there appear to be very few times when the stars align and the conditions are perfect for morning deck reading.

The weather has to be just right – not too hot or cold. It can’t have rained overnight because I am generally too lazy to wipe down the chairs. I have to have time and not be committed to other activities, something to read – ideally something in my e-book where I can adjust the light level to suit the conditions – and be able to find my sunglasses.


Notably, a number of the conditions I have outlined are outside of my control (weather, temperature). Others (the appropriate book and whether I feel like reading outside) are solely under my control. Several conditions may be controlled either by myself or someone else (the time schedule, whether the chairs have been wiped down).

If for some reason my husband were particularly keen that I should be out reading rather than in the cottage (which may occur if he wants to sleep in), he can influence my behavior. He can ensure we have no morning activities scheduled, find my book and sunglasses and leave them in an obvious location, suggest to me the night before that I might want to read outside – he might even cover one of the chairs with plastic so it will be dry in the morning.

What tends not to work is for him to issue a decree to me: “You should read outside on the deck in the morning!” That kind of thing tends to get my dander up. Even though neither my husband nor I have any real control over many of the factors that influence my reading-on- the-deck behavior, he can certainly nudge me in the desired direction.

This brings me to the subject of this column, a book entitled <Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness.> The concept of nudging someone should not be unfamiliar to anyone in policing. Although people tend not to use the word “nudge,” a lot of what we tried to accomplish in community policing essentially constitutes nudging. It is a way of setting up conditions so that people are more likely to choose the best or most adaptive option, not forcing them into decisions but rather making it easier to make the correct choice. How do we make people want to drive at the speed limit? Put down their cell phones while driving? Not loot following a natural disaster? Refrain from joining a gang? Rat out a friend who has committed some heinous crime?

For that matter, how do managers and supervisors encourage staff to make good decisions about coming to work, following policy and treating the public well even when they’re not convinced they deserve it?

In many ways, you could argue that this book is Intro Psych with more amusing stories and fewer tedious academic references. It is essentially about how we get anyone to do anything. It talks about incentives, changing defaults, education… not news, I dare say, but it does make one think.

Take the power of social conformity. This is also not news to most of us, of course. People like to do what other people are doing. The authors argue that one of the most persuasive ways of changing behavior is simply telling people what others are doing.

They give as an example a comparison of four different strategies used in Minnesota to encourage people to file their taxes:

(1) Telling people about all the good things their tax dollars are used for.
(2) Telling people the penalties for noncompliance.
(3) Offering people assistance in filling out their tax forms.
(4) Telling people more than 90 per cent of resident comply with their obligations under the tax laws.

The only strategy that had any effect was the last one. If you tell people everyone else is doing something, they are more likely to do it. It seems to me that this may have some interesting implications for how we talk about high crime areas and related statistics such as school dropout rates.

Emphasize that two out of every 10 youth in a certain area are members of a street gang and 40 per cent of students in a given high school never graduate and you are in fact encouraging them to join the gang and drop out of school. Emphasize that eight out of every 10 youth in that area do not join gangs and 60 per cent graduate and you are encouraging a different kind of behavior altogether. You haven’t changed the statistics or the true state of affairs but you have nudged people in the right direction.

Then there was the “Don’t mess with Texas” anti-litter campaign. State officials noted that most litterers were young men 18-25 (who, as we know, seem to be responsible for 90 per cent of the world’s ills). Somehow they were not impressed by the “keep our state pretty” type campaigns that seems to resonate with little old ladies.

A campaign involving huge pro football players driving big honking trucks and crushing littered beer cans with their bare hands while grunting “Don’t mess with Texas” did the trick, however. The message here? If you can relate to the messenger, you are more likely to relate to the message.

A different kind of nudging can occur in a school cafeteria. You may be familiar with experiments where schools eliminated menu choices such as chocolate covered poutine and deep-fried lard in favor of lentil bisque and vegan burgers. These decisions did not result in students engaging in healthier eating but simply going across the street to the fast food joint for lunch.

Simply placing the poutine and lard on a higher shelf however, slightly outside of eyeshot, and putting all the green things front and center resulted in students making much healthier choices. They were not directed or legislated into eating differently but opted to make better choices. It’s all a matter of positioning.

The authors talk about the role of the “choice architect.” In the above instance, the school dietitian is the choice architect by arranging things to maximize the likelihood students will make their own healthy choices.

I like the phrase “choice architect,” even though the concept is not new. There are ways of setting things up so certain decisions are more likely to result. If your magazine subscription automatically renews itself if you take no action, you are likely to still be getting “Today’s Toddler” even when your kids are in college. Someone designed things so that you are more likely to keep subscribing. The magazine people are the choice architects in this case; they set things up to make it easier for you to make (in this case) the choice they want you to make.

One of the things I liked about this book was that it reminds us all that some of the things that we THINK influence behaviour really don’t work. Threats of punishment, moralistic lectures? Not so much. Constant feedback, incentives, social pressure, simplifying the good choices, leveling the playing field… and a host of other things we learned in Psych 100, work better.

Have a look at the book. I’ll bet you find at least one idea that will change the way you do your everyday work.

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