Behavioural scientists, but also psychologists, sociologists, and others studying people’s attitudes and behaviours, often look like a close clique of well-intended people talking behind others’ backs. They know and discuss the inconsistencies in people’s behaviour, or how emotional they are, or how suboptimal their decisions are, but they only seldom seem to care enough to inform these same people of their findings. This is not to disregard the efforts of many non-fiction writers who try to popularize these findings – by all means, they have raised the general level of knowledge about the flaws in our reasoning processes. Yet, a significant share of us remain untouched by this hand of insight, be it because we don’t read enough or because we read other stuff.
An alternative image I have, especially for behavioural scientists, is that of the parent. As their insights are relatively easy to apply, at least in smaller scale, they often discuss their findings with policy makers and support them in devising solutions. Not that this is a bad thing – not at all. But what it does is that it doesn’t raise the awareness of the issue that requires the solution in the first place.
In a nutshell, it seems that scientists are either unwilling to popularize their findings, unable to do so in a way that reaches wider audiences, or simply don’t believe in people’s capacity to understand the underlying principles behind behavioural interventions.
This article, recently published in the Behavioural Public Policy journal, is a breath of fresh air in that respect: https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-public-policy/article/selfnudging-and-the-citizen-choice-architect/F526628F7F3C7B436FA2BCBFC1FC3C76/core-reader. The authors advocate for complementing the top-down here-is-a-solution approach with one that acquaints people with the principles of nudging. This in turn would allow people to create interventions on their own, thus making their actions and decisions more effective. In essence, it is about
“empowering interventions that enable people to design and structure their own decision environments – that is, to act as citizen choice architects.”https://www.cambridge.org/core/journals/behavioural-public-policy/article/selfnudging-and-the-citizen-choice-architect/F526628F7F3C7B436FA2BCBFC1FC3C76/core-reader
We will need a lot more work to make this nudge-yourself approach a reality. As we already know, pure facts and knowledge are not sufficient in changing people’s behaviour, so we can’t really expect that simply explaining the principles would be sufficient. The question might be more productively posed as How do we nudge people to nudge themselves. While a meta question like this will be difficult to answer, it will probably lead to good results.
Now, even though I’m all in for this approach, I still wonder how could it work in practice. It looks to me like tickling yourself – something that we can’t do (at least to my knowledge). At least some of the power of nudges comes from the fact that they hide in mundane, everyday structures and environments, i.e. they go unnoticed. The moment you notice things they lose some of their magic; the effect is the same as doing a dissection. But then again, maybe once we implement a nudge and follow it for some time it will recede into the domain of everyday once again, thus becoming effective. One can only hope.
My best wishes for a great day ahead!