By Deborah Wroe

How did a simple message on gov.uk increase organ donor registration by 100,000? Using nudge theory that’s how.

Positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can and do influence behaviour. Nudge theory doesn’t have a single adopted definition but its origins lie in behavioural economics and its about – from a marketing and communications perspective – how slight changes in wording for example can make a massive difference to consumer behaviour.

One of the most oft cited examples of nudge theory is a fly painted on a urinal in the toilets at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport. The story goes that having something to aim at, reduced spillage by 80%. No-one told the men to aim at the fly. Or more importantly told them to not to pee on the seat. The presence of the fly affected significant change in behaviour.

The UK’s ‘nudge unit’ The Behavioural Insights Team, which was a government department and is now a social purpose company who “use insights from behavioural science to encourage people to make better choices for themselves and society” has just published its 2 year update report.*.

The unit’s successes include increasing opting in to organ donor registration through additional messaging online after the website visitor had applied for vehicle tax. The best performing message was based on reciprocity ‘If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so please help others.” and an increase in visits to an energy swap website after including the website details on the envelopes of winter fuel payment notification letters. The report also includes some experiments that didn’t work such as the inclusion of stop smoking messages on pregnancy tests which showed little effect on take up.

Following last week’s news from Public Health England that e-cigarettes are 95% less harmful than normal cigarettes but most people haven’t got the foggiest about it**, it will be interesting to see what the nudge unit does to encourage take up of e-cigarettes. Their work in this area to date has been focused on supporting the regulatory framework and highlighting that “an important tenet of behaviour change is that it is much easier to substitute a similar behaviour than to eliminate an entrenched one”. So now we know they are safe(r) how will people be nudged to take up e-cigarettes?

Detractors of nudge say it’s mind games. We, those in the business of not selling things people don’t want to people who don’t need or can’t afford them applaud the work of the nudge unit. Clever communications and changing behaviours through subtle wording is what comms professionals do. Test, refine, test again. Small changes can make a massive difference.


** * https://www.gov.uk/government/news/e-cigarettes-around-95-less-harmful-than-tobacco-estimates-landmark-review