Leadership & Influence

Influencing For Good: Nudging People To Behave Better

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In 2010, the British government created a unit called the Behavioral Insights Team or “Nudge Unit.” It uses behavioral psychology to “nudge” people on policy issues. Using A/B testing and social psychology they test which variants of a message most influence the public’s decisions.

Too often people try to influence others to move away from negative behavior through direct means like reasoning. Far worse is to threaten and shame people. But little is achieved with these approaches.

Sometimes a gentle nudge, using proven behavioral sciences techniques, can yield the best results.

A famous example in which the Behavioral Insights Team found success was related to tax compliance in the UK.

The British government would typically send letters to people who had not paid their taxes. The Nudge Unit changed the wording of the letters using the concept of social proof (one of Robert Cialdini’s 7 principles of influence). In addition to the regular wording, the letters also stated correctly, that 90% of the residents of that town or area pay their taxes on time.

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This simple addition to the letter increased the rate of tax compliance by 5% compared to the previous wording. This 5% was not trivial, as it translated to many millions of pounds recovered from back taxes.

The people getting these letters were made to feel part of a minority that does not comply. Through pressure to adhere to social norms, they felt more isolated as tax evaders and this nudged their decision enough to achieve compliance. We are both, consciously and subconsciously, influenced by the actions of others to a large extent.

A similar tax experiment was conducted by the state of Minnesota in 1995 with the tactic of social proof also giving the highest compliance.

To increase the rate of organ donations when drivers licenses were renewed, the team used the influence principle of reciprocity. They made a simple addition to the form – “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.” This added about 100,000 extra donors per year compared to the control group.

These small changes cost us nothing but have a big influence on how people respond.

The book that inspired the formation of the behavioral insights team was Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, Penguin Group, New York, NY 2009. Richard Thaler was awarded the 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics mostly for his work detailed in this book and for creating the field of behavioral economics.

To nudge people towards positive behavior, make it Easy, Attract attention, Social, and Timely (EAST).

Behavioral change starts with a small nudge in the right direction. You can read some of the other influence principles that can help nudge people here.

If you want to improve your persuasion skills to nudge people better, these books will help you do exactly that:

Best books to improve your influencing and persuasion skills


Influence, Persuasion, Behavioral Economics, Richard Thaler, Cass Sunstein, Nudge Unit, Behavioral Insights Team

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