Nudge is not enough on its own

The House of Lords report on behaviour change makes fascinating reading. Its overall conclusion is that persuasion alone is not enough to change the behaviour of large groups of people. Incentives and sanctions are necessary too.

The ‘nudge theory’, which has found favour with some politicians, advocates persuading people to change their behaviour rather than offering them incentives or threatening them with punishment. While nudge has its place, says the Science and Technology Committee, it is not enough on its own. It expressed doubt about the effectiveness of persuasion on individuals and on corporations. It concluded:

We therefore urge ministers to ensure that policy makers are made aware of the evidence that non-regulatory measures are often not likely to be effective if used in isolation and that evidence regarding the whole range of policy interventions should be considered before they commit to using non-regulatory measures alone.

In other words,  a bit more Old Fashioned Father and a little less Modern Dad.

Some of you will no doubt consider this heresy. After all, organisations successfully change the behaviour of large groups of people all the time don’t they? Isn’t that what those of us in Organisation Development and Human Resources like to think of as our stock in trade? There is a whole package of interventions, loosely describes as Change Management, which are designed to ‘take the people with you’ when you need to change the way the company works. By means of communication, engagement, role modelling and the winning of hearts and minds, we persuade employees not only to accept but to embrace the new world.

Only we don’t really. We cheat. Successful organisational change is always accompanied by rewards and sanctions to reinforce the new behaviours. As Edgar Schein said, if you want to understand a company’s real values, rather than its espoused ones, you need to like at who its heroes, villains and fools are and what it punishes and rewards. Its legends and stories are important but so are its sticks and carrots. The sticks and carrots do as much as the nudges to change behaviour. What is proclaimed by the CEO and HR Director as commitment may often just be well-disguised compliance.

Of course, the most crucial difference between organisations and governments is that organisations eventually get rid of the people who refuse to behave in the required way. Sometimes they will choose to leave because the changes make them feel uncomfortable, or else they will be eased out through contrived redundancy or early retirement. In a few cases, if their managers are brave enough, they will be fired. Leaders of organisations can therefore claim to have changed the behaviours of large populations when, actually, all they have done is removed those who refused to comply. Governments, however much they might like to, can’t do that.

When attempting to change people’s behaviour, nudge on its own is rarely enough. There are some people who, for whatever reason, won’t respond to the various techniques of persuasion and engagement deployed by corporate or national leaders.

The Lords’ Science and Technology Committee has done us all a favour by summarising the evidence which demonstrates this. Its report is aimed at government policy makers but those of us in the corporate world should find it interesting too. Its conclusion, that engagement and persuasion need to be backed up by sanctions and incentives, applies to behavioural change in all contexts, whether at a corporate or national level. It’s a bit unfashionable to say so at the moment but sometimes you have to bribe and punish people to get them to do something different.

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5 Responses to Nudge is not enough on its own

  1. Pingback: Nudge is not enough on its own - Rick - Member Blogs - HR Blogs - HR Space from Personnel Today and Xpert HR

  2. Tom says:

    Of course, the creators and advocates for Nudge theory – Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein – make this clear both in their academic papers and the popular book. Nudging is a weak tool – sometimes people need a slap!

    The reason Nudge theory has been so successful is that, as usual, when you tell someone who likes x, ‘well, x works under certain circumstances to a certain degree’ they hear ‘x solves everything’. The coalition government (sometimes) favour a free market so don’t want heavy regulatory burdens. By then hearing of Nudge theory which is supposed to be an alternative to some regulation (not all), they embrace it like a long lost lover from deepest Saigon.

    Interesting to see how Cass Sunstein has ensured some strong regulatory measures in the US.

  3. Does the report stick to such carefully useless wording as “sometimes” and “often not likely to be effective”? Or does it actually offer any criteria for distinguishing between scenarios where nudges are and are not effective? Or even, maybe, a scale of effectiveness which would let people make informed tradeoffs and decisions?

    To be fair, I suppose it’s the social scientists’ job to provide those answers and not that of the Lords – but I’m not convinced the committee was asking the interesting questions.

  4. Cahal Moran says:

    Nudge isn’t about persuading people. It’s about harnessing cognitive biases to help people make sensible decisions. People seem to fail to grasp that – I wonder how many have *actually* read Nudge. The point is that you can’t present choices neutrally, so present them in a way that Nudges someone towards a better option.

    For example, putting ‘do you want to be an organ doner?’ on somebody’s driving license application isn’t persuasive; it simply makes it easy for someone to donate, which most people want to do but never get round to.

    This ‘Nudge is not enough’ crap bothers me a bit – I’m not libertarian, but the idea of the state commanding people to behave in certain ways and punishing them if they don’t grates with me.

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