In 1999, the authorities at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam were looking to cut costs. One of the most expensive jobs was keeping the floor of the men’s toilet clean. Instead of politely reminding men not to pee on the floor, the Airport Board had an idea: to etch a picture of a fly into each urinal. When they implemented this technique, the cleaning bill reportedly fell by 80%, which translated into major savings in maintenance costs (Sommer, 2009).
This fly technique has now been employed worldwide, from JFK Airport, Singapore and elementary bathrooms all over America, showing how a harmless bit of engineering manages to attract people’s attention and alter their behaviour in a positive way, without really having to do anything at all.
This technique is what is known as a ‘Nudge’ - any feature of a person’s context that encourages them to behave in a certain way (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008). The ‘Nudge’ policy approach took the United States and United Kingdom by storm in 2008, when Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler released their groundbreaking book. It described how a minimalist strategy could increase the likelihood that a more responsible behaviour choice is made.
They argue that we can exploit cognitive biases to nudge, or gently guide, people’s behaviour into making choices that are better for them and for the rest of us too – while always leaving them free to choose otherwise.
“Nudge Units” and Behvaioural Insight teams are now employed across various Companies and Governments globally.
Research – Nudge towards healthy eating:
To encourage healthier eating in a cafeteria, Rozin et al (2011) used strategic placement of certain foods available to adults. They made slight changes in the accessibility of different foods in a pay-by-weight-of-food salad bar, making food more difficult to changing the serving utensil. They found that this modestly, but reliably, reduced intake in the range of 8-16%.
It is, as expected, that some nudges are much more successful than others, and it can be argued that more needs to be done to actually change the internal attitudes of people instead of merely guiding their behaviour, but there is no doubt that it is a good place to start.
Rozin, P., Scott, S., Dingley, M., Urbanek, J. K., Jiang, H., & Kaltenbach, M. (2011). Nudge to nobesity I: Minor changes in accessibility decrease food intake. Judgment and Decision Making, 6, 323-332.
Sommer, L. (2009). When Humans Need a Nudge Toward Rationality. The New York Times. Retrieved from: http://www.nytimes.com/2009/02/08/business/08nudge.html.
Thaler, R., & Sunstein, C. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Boston: Yale University Press.