A nudge in the right direction…?

Nudges in the right direction: the belief that human beings can be encouraged to make life-improving choices through incentives and social cues rather than through regulation and government legislation.

The human race is now less healthy than the previous generation, will die younger, with more life-style diseases than ever before. Leaving lifestyle choices up to the general public is not working. The free-market system is partly responsible here, but so are human’s in-built motivations to acquire possessions, power and high-calorie food.

Personal motivation is ranged against huge forces driving in the opposite direction, including massive advertising campaigns, a culture of technological dependence, genetics and cultural learning pushing us towards self-indulgence and laziness.

There are hundreds of small modern alterations to our everyday lives which detract from our health and our understanding of the world we live in. There are also hundreds which enhance us in many ways. In general though, the trend seems to be negative, with lifestyle diseases increasing, eating habits degenerating, fitness falling and (in seems) overall motivation and happiness sliding.

I’m always banging on about sustainability but it’s one of many examples where nudges just don’t work – the two ideas aren’t even on the same page. They aren’t even in the same book! When small changes made by a few people are not enough, there has to be something stronger than just incentives and social cues. This is where strong Government intervention comes in. Legislating for change is honestly the only way major issues get dealt with.

Take smoking as an example. Even with very clear and direct warnings all over a packet of fags, including images of the damage that will be caused by using the product, people still smoke. Everyone knows smoking causes various cancers, but roughly 20% of the adult population in the UK still smokes. These nudges aren’t enough.

Compare this approach with the ban on smoking indoors in public places, introduced in July 2007 in the UK. Research from Scotland (according to this BBC article) found a 17% reduction in heart attack admissions in the year following the ban. This is a positive trend found in many countries and states which have introduced such bans.

The single most important factor affecting people’s lifestyle choices is cost. Cost determines many of our daily choices, from the house we live in to the car we drive, to the type of food we eat and how much of it we eat. It determines everything we do, because generally, most of the things we are engaged in for most of our waking lives, costs money.

The price of petrol has risen dramatically over the last few years and has put many motorists off the road. In 2009, there was a 11.3% fall in registrations, with this trend continuing into this year.

“It is the impact of pump prices,” said an AA spokesman. “When we ask motorists what factors have influenced their choice of car, fuel economy comes second after reliability. Environmental concerns come some way down.”

So, less motorists has lowered the CO2 output of the transport sector, but environmental concerns were not the initiating factor, cost was.

I feel nudges will work very well on a very small section of the population, moderately well on a larger minority, but will fail to work on the vast majority. You really have to be quite self-motivated to stand back from the crowd and take a different direction. This is not an easy thing to do and sometimes it seems everything in our society is trying to keep people where they are.

“Politicians all have a split personality,” Julia Neuberger adds. “On one level, they engage their brains and they know perfectly well that things do take quite a long time to happen. On the other, they’ve got a very short time frame: they want to get re-elected, they need to make a mark. I think they found that (Nudge theory) very appealing because, broadly, they prefer the idea of using behavioural change interventions to legislating or using fiscal measures.”



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