17 September 2009

How governments influence people's behaviour

Radio 4 have aired a programme, Persuading us to be Good, on the failure of government attempts to improve our health, environmental and other behaviour. Apparently telling people there is 'an obesity crisis' or that 'millions are wasted on missed hospital appointments' has the undesired effect of encouraging people to believe that what they're doing is part of the norm. Messages telling you that changing your behaviour will be good for society, good for your children, or even good for you are less powerful than nudging you by telling you that other people have adopted a positive behaviour (see research comparing your energy consumption to others'). Other techniques such as 'choice architecture' (giving you the positive option first, leaving you to opt out for a less desirable choice), group commitment, public declaration of goals all help push us misguided individuals along the path to compliance.

Both the UK Labour and Conservative parties, facing various crises in office, or potentially so, have behavioural change gurus. For Labour, it's social psychologist Robert Cialdini, author of Influence: the Psychology of Persuasion; for the Tories, it's behavioural economist, Richard Thaler, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

Sentiment towards psychologists seems very positively set in government circles, as least at the moment.

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