The Benedictine asked his abbot for permission to smoke while he was praying. Not only was this refused but he was punished for even asking. His friend, the Jesuit, sought the same permission from his rector by asking if he might pray while he was smoking. He was congratulated for his devotion. It’s an old story, and we can easily understand how a simple choice of phrasing gave a different response. But nowadays we must call this “nudging”.

Ten years ago “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, was published. The BBC described it as “probably the most influential popular science book ever written.” Thaler won the Nobel Prize for economics and Sunstein moved to the Obama White House to give guidance on persuading the public. Apparently the core idea has been adopted by several countries, leading the BBC to use the phrase “One small book has changed the world.”

So just what is a ‘nudge’? The simplest example might be to price an item in a supermarket at £2.99 rather than £3.00. We are aware of the triviality of the difference, but we read prices from the left and so somewhere in the brain, our choice is affected. A more substantial example comes from our friends in the HMRC. In order to speed up tax returns they chose the phrase: “Most people pay their tax on time. You are one of the few yet to do so.” Its use, instead of a plain reminder, improved returns by 15 per cent. Similarly, inviting job applicants to come for a second interview was more successful when addressed to the candidate by name, and even more so when the letter wished good luck. Another class of nudge is to change a request for people to opt in by automatically opting everyone in, unless they choose to opt out. It ensured that many more poor parents got free meals for their children.

Of course the effectiveness of these little nudges is easy to understand. Indeed we have always known that persuasion requires this kind of nudge. Even the Serpent used the nudge “eat the fruit and you will be like gods”. That nudge captured the whole human race. Many decades ago I was in the business of arranging pensions, and I certainly used nudges then. When we reached the crucial point of the actual application, I prevented my client from signing until he had read the terms and conditions. At that crucial point of uncertainty my insistence communicated my trustworthiness. It never missed. Similarly, when he was considering the size of his contribution (not his premium – another nudge) I told him what other clients in a similar situation usually contributed. Funnily enough he often found that he could afford just about the same as his peers.

But I do have some beef about all of this. Some 30 years ago I wrote a book (How To Get Your Own Way in Business). It went well: good reviews and a range of foreign translations. I was teaching such things as how to persuade your boss by using his values as motivation rather than your own, or how to delegate by encouraging personal commitment in a staff member. I was asked to communicate such techniques to a wide range of organisations under the title of “As the bishop said to the actress”. (That in itself was a nudge.) The fees were good but sadly no one suggested that I should get a Nobel Prize, or sent me off to advise Trump. Perhaps this was because I failed to call it Nudges, and aimed it specifically at business.

Do we feel uncomfortable at carefully choosing phrases which reflect our understanding of the susceptibility of human nature in order to get our own way? There is deviousness here. Perhaps the most primitive example is to teach infants to say please and thank you, knowing that it will help them to get better results – to say nothing of the value of a smile.

We might also consider the use of the nudge in the Church’s methods of teaching. Historically the moral law has been communicated in a negative way. “Thou shalt not…” is the opening phrase. And predominantly its characteristics are forms of punishment right up to the threat of eternity in the fires of Hell: scarcely a nudge, more like being hit over the head with a sledgehammer. Perhaps it would be better to keep our focus on the positive prospect of virtue. We all understand the meaning of the word ‘grace’, but how consciously are we aware that it is the presence of Christ’s love which we are privileged to express? When we think of those who hold other religious beliefs, or none, are we aware that any one of them may be closer to God than we are? (Nudge nudge)

(published in CH 10 August 2018)

About Quentin

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3 Responses to Nudges

  1. John Candido says:

    Human nature being what it is, will nudge its way to their self-chosen objectives unselfconsciously. The naturalness, commonality, and pervasiveness of communicating persuasively make nudging almost a human right. We cannot imagine a salesperson without a skill-set that includes nudes. The same can be said of politicians or leaders in any context. Humans are born to act in their self-interest and the use of nudges are second nature. To expect otherwise is foolishness.

    • John Candido says:


      What a howler!

      John Nolan where are you?

      ‘We cannot imagine a salesperson without a skill-set that includes nudes.’

      What I meant to write is …without a skill-set that includes nudges!

  2. John Thomas says:

    It’s the same with everything: if “good” people use these things for only other people’s good, nudging will only do good. If it’s the opposite way round, the consequences will be awful. Or rather (there is surely no such thing as a “good” or “bad” person, original sin aside) people/governments start off with good intentions, using nudging for the peoples’ good, and slowly end up getting corrupted (by the resulting power … and original badness).

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