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Nudges and marginal gains

Nudges and marginal gains

For those familiar with the flashing lights of pub fruit machines the term nudges will probably relate to trying to get the jackpot reels lined up.  In recent times it has taken on a more scientific meaning as part of the wider field of Behavioural Economics.

The wider theory is based on the fact that nudges are small changes in the environment that are easy and inexpensive to implement.  One of the most frequently cited examples of a nudge in the stickers of flies placed on to the urinals at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam.  The idea is the etching of the fly encourages the user to “aim” for the fly, either consciously or subconsciously.  The reason for this?  Reduced cleaning costs by reducing splashback from the urinal.

The fly in the urinal is the go-to example of nudge theory yet and the low cost high impact outcomes are the reason governments and multinationals are investing in this field.

One of the biggest challenges of governments is how to influence the behaviour of its citizens to improve and maintain physical health.  Large scale, highly visible campaigns have relative success but they are more around telling individuals what to do than engaging with them.

Logistically it may prove hard for national level government to implement behavioural change and it may fall to regional bodies to introduce schemes to improve public health.  As part of the Newcastle Can campaign, Hugh Fearnley-Whittingstall (of River Cottage fame) worked with Newcastle City Council and behaviour scientists to look at ways of improving the health of the city.  One experiment was to place orange footprint stickers leading from the platform of the Metro station to the stairs to encourage people to make this choice rather than take the escalator.  The nudge worked with some commuters saying they actively chose to follow them out of curiosity and some stating they didn’t even realise they were following them to the stairs.  This three-week pilot saw a 35% increase in commuters taking the stairs rather than the escalators.  This is nudge theory at its finest, a low-cost scheme with high take up.  The impact of this alone is not going to reduce obesity but as part of a series of measures it is a start.

On an individual level it is harder to apply nudge theory as you would have to be aware of said nudges to implement them.  That said, small changes in behaviour can have health benefits.  I’ve recently taken to parking my car on the top floor of the work car park meaning I have an extra three flights of stairs to descend and then climb at the end of the day.  I’ve started packing my gym bag the evening before and putting it next to the front door so I’ve no choice but to pick it up on my way out.  This works a treat for me as I am not a morning person and if it isn’t ready to go then I won’t take it.

Being a tech nerd, I have also invested in a FitBit step tracker which isn’t even discrete at nudging me to get some steps in when I have spent too long sat at my desk.  The supporting app and community it creates helps foster activity in users.  Competing in challenges with friends becomes addictive and I’ve found myself pacing the stairs to get to my target and even marching down the street at 11:55pm to ‘win’ a challenge of the most steps in a day.

Whilst these nudges and marginal gains alone will not likely result in the dramatic changes I am hoping for personally, they will certainly contribute toward it.

  • Take the stairs rather than a lift or escalator
  • Get off the bus a stop or two earlier and walk the remaining distance
  • Park at the furthest point of the car park from where you need to be
  • Walk to a colleagues desk rather than send an email or use the phone

Anyone have other ideas along these lines?



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