All it takes is a nudge in the right direction - so the saying goes. Some in government believe it is true, or rather hope it is. Wouldn’t it be good if a nudge in the right direction could get people to eat healthier, drink less alcohol and exercise more? Reduced obesity, diabetes, strokes and heart attacks, improved life expectancy, improved quality of life, all at a reduced cost to the NHS.
No wonder the idea is attractive to politicians: not only does it cost less, it doesn’t require legislation. This is very appealing to politicians who don’t want to be accused of promoting a “nanny state”.
An example of nudge theory at work is the traffic light system on food labelling. This tells us if the food is high in sugar, salt or saturated fat. Armed with this information the consumer can choose to eat healthier.
So does it work? Not according to a report by Baroness Neuberger to the House of Lords, whose 12 month study has concluded you need more than just a nudge to change behaviours.
Most of us would agree that this is true. Warnings on cigarette packets don’t stop people from smoking. People don’t turn of the TV and go for a run simply because all the evidence says it will reduce the risk of a stroke or heart attack. It took a heart bypass operation before I started drinking red wine instead of beer and spirits.
So if nudge doesn’t work, what does? Car seatbelts are an example of changing people behaviour that has worked. The introduction of car seatbelts and legislation requiring passengers to wear them supported by an awareness campaign made a dramatic reduction in deaths and serious injuries.
What the popularity of “nudge theory” illustrates is the willingness of politicians and managers to grab hold of a quick fix. They know perfectly well that it takes time, effort and resources to change people’s behaviour but they are under pressure to bring about change quickly, preferably without increasing spending or upsetting invested interest.
Know what I mean, nudge nudge, wink wink.