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Thursday, 26 November 2015

Rethinking Economics meets Behavioural Economics meets Behaviour Workshops

Rethinking Economics is an international network of rethinkers working together to “demystify, diversify and invigorate economics.” It was great to be asked to write a chapter on Behavioural Economics for their forthcoming reader, “An Introduction to pluralist economics,” to be published this year by Routledge. It’s equally delightful that the draft has now been set to the editor! Each chapter of the book will contain a brief introduction to a different field of economic thinking, written by an academic in the subject, plus a case study co-written by a student. More details here.

Wednesday, 21 October 2015

The Dangers of ‘Common Sense’

"There is always a well-known solution to every human problem - neat, plausible and wrong."

H  L Mencken

Wednesday, 30 September 2015

Nudging in the Smoke, Part 2: London Behavioural Insights Conference BX2015

The Behavioural Insights Team has now posted the videos from the plenary sessions, individual streams and workshops from the London Behavioural Insights Conference BX2015. So, no excuse for not catching up with all the latest material from behavioural economics and behavioural insights as applied to behaviour change interventions and policy. Click here.  

If you don’t have time to watch all the videos, following, as a public service (we were there, in real time), is our pick of the quotes from the sessions which we attended.

Reasons to be humble

“When we observe behaviour that we don’t understand, it can be because people actually know things that we don’t.”

Rachel Glennerster

“The poor are largely unseen.”

Eldar Shafir

Women Are Missing…and here’s what to do about it

“Between 100 million and 160 million girls and women are ‘missing’ because of sex-selective abortion, mistreatment and abuse.”

“Seeing is believing. If we don’t see women as CEOs or men as kindergarten teachers, we don’t believe it’s possible.”

“When it comes to tackling gender inequality, rather than change people’s minds, we should change the environment in which people live and work.”

“We have known for over 60 years that a selection interview is a poor predictor of future performance. And panel interviews are even worse because of groupthink.”

“Don’t establish a prescriptive norm by how you describe things, such as the lack of women in certain fields.”

Iris Bohnet

The Curse of Knowledge strikes again

“Writing is an act of pretence and craftsmanship.”

“The curse of knowledge is the biggest barrier to clear writing.”

Steven Pinker

How reciprocity can beat the market

“There are six universal principles of social influence: reciprocation, liking, scarcity, social proof, authority, commitment.”

“If a change is small, it’s more likely to be implemented by the people who you are asking to do it.” (although it could bring major results)

“Reciprocity is about more than the traditional economic tit-for-tat model based on exchange. And it’s better if you go first, because people will want to give in return.”

“You should always think about what you can give that helps meet the needs of your audience.”

“Ernest Hemingway’s bet-winning short story, told in six words: ‘For Sale: baby shoes. Never used.’ “

“Start with a broad smile.”

Robert Cialdini

Multi-tasker? Yeah, Right.

“Multi-tasking is a myth. We can’t do more than one thing at a time.”

Marjorie Stiegler

Insights and Advice from Daniel Kahneman

Advice to those trying to influence policy makers: “What is preventing people doing the things that you want them to do? When you implement the policy who will be the losers and what will they do to you?

Advice to students: “Be less about (the) literature and more about life.”

Advice to everyone:  “Don’t study anything that isn’t interesting or fun. Don’t worry so much. And know when to give up.”

Answering a question from Steven Pinker on whether de-biasing should be part of the curriculum:

“It should be possible to give people the chance to slow down and reflect on what they are doing. But people can’t be reflective all the time. For decision making, structure is a good thing. But this isn’t the same as de-biasing.”

“A lot of decision making in firms and in government is of very poor quality. It has evolved, it has not been designed.”

Daniel Kahneman

The Power of Search and the trouble with economics

“If people are interested in economics, you can be pretty sure that the economy is in trouble.”

From Google search results, “The strongest correlations with “Hardest Place to live in America” are disability, diabetic, blood pressure, antichrist and the rapture.”

Hal Varian

The thin line between honesty and dishonesty

“People normally only take a maximum of four free candies from a malfunctioning (experimentally fixed) vending machine, because five would be stealing.”

“People invite their friends to join in because of reverse social proof – if they do it, it makes it ok that you’ve done it.”

“Corruption is not about knowing that something is wrong – it’s about putting it into a place where you don’t care about it.” (e.g, not in the box marked ‘family’).

“Once you are in a corrupt environment, where the work takes place under different rules, behaviour changes very quickly.”

“The incidence of corruption and cheating is pretty similar across the world. But culture changes the domains in which corruption happens.”

“We think of ourselves in binary terms – we are either good or bad.”

“The logic of confession from the standpoint of an economist: if we can get absolution, why not cheat more. Even on the way to the church.”

“The standard models for understanding corruption are based on cost benefit analysis: the consequences of actions. But it’s actually more to do with rationalisation in the moment.”

“Whistleblowers are more likely to be women, because they aren’t part of ‘the boy’s club’ and aren’t betraying the group.”

“Drunk driving kills people, so we legislate to prevent it. But there are many other ways of killing people that we tolerate. Why?”

Dan Ariely

Markets are looking out for the naïve consumer – it could be you (some of the time)

“Consumers can be naïve or sophisticated, but not all the time. Even sophisticated consumers make mistakes, and markets are good at finding the instance when that mistake is made.”

Paul Heidhues

Firms are not black boxes

“Because firms are run by humans, they may not always profit-maxmimise.”

“Regulatory remedies rely on people acting in certain ways. If these don’t happen, bad outcomes follow.”

“Behavioural economics can be incorporated into the market.”

Amelia Fletcher

Why mindless eating can be a good thing

“It’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind.”

“We don’t know what we like, and we don’t know why we do what we do. Both of which are opportunities to change behaviour.”

“In the US, it’s possible to predict a person’s weight based on about nine observable variables in their kitchen. If a cereal box is visible, they are likely to be 20lb heavier than their neighbours.”

Brian Wansink

Last but not least – a few concluding gems

“When it comes to food, the less you pay, the more you get.”

Unidentified contributor

“If you have to go out of your way to think about healthy eating, you won’t do it.”

Sam Kass

“The average British male is eating 200 calories a day more than he needs.”

Alison Tedstone

“It’s important to learn from failure. It’s not just about saying ‘When it works, it’s all down to me and my colleagues. When it doesn’t work, we blame other factors.” You should not be afraid to create a situation in which interventions might fail – you could even give 3 “fails” a year to put in the bank”

Andrea Schneider

“The ancient Greeks were familiar with ‘weakness of the will.’ People do not always do what’s best for themselves.”

Daniel Gordon

Saturday, 5 September 2015

Nudging in The Smoke: Notes, Quotes and Thoughts on the London Behavioural Insights Conference BX2015

For two days this week Behavioural Exchange, the International Behavioural Insights Conference made London the global epicentre of behavioural economics as applied to policy and practice. Or, if you prefer, behavioural science. Or behavioural insight. Or, as Daniel Kahneman memorably (and acerbically put it) when video-linked for a transatlantic interview with Richard Thaler, “applied social psychology.” 

Behaviour Workshops followed the footsteps and soaked up two days of great talks and discussion sessions from some of the greatest names in behavioural economics (and applied social psychology!), with keynote sessions from Thaler and a virtual Kahneman (video linked from New York), as well as Robert Cialdini, Steven Pinker, Dan Ariely, Max Bazerman and Eldar Shafir. Plus a range of parallel sessions featuring experts from fields such as digital behaviours, savings, education, crime, work, obesity, climate change and international development. 

It’s impossible to summarise two such stimulating days - there's a lot of mental processing still going on. In fact, there were so many great quotes that we will be drip-feeding these into the blog over the next few postings.

As a taster, following are a few of the great quotes from Richard Thaler’s conference appearance, starting with his “Two Nudge Mantras”, notably:

1 If you want to nudge people to do something, make it easy.

2 We can’t do evidence-based policy without evidence.”

Another, memorable quote, which he always puts in his book signings,

“Nudge for good.”

And here are a few more,

“It’s good to have policy where, 'if you do nothing, good things happen.'”

“If you get great results, always replicate. If it looks too good to be true, it probably is.”

“So far, nudge units have used a small amount of psychology and virtually no economics.”

“People question the ethics when nudges are used in the public sector, but not when they are used in the private sector...firms and government should operate to the same standards of behaviour.”

“We didn’t invent nudging, it has been around forever. Private companies do it. And we can’t control what people do with it.”

Plenty to engage System 2 and reflect upon there. Speaking of which, here are some initial reflections on the conference.

Most Shocking Admission

A brilliant session on Revealing Preferences, with Dan Ariely on trust and Google’s Chief Economist Hal Varian on the rich data from search, was introduced by the Head of the UK Government Economic Service, Sir Dave Ramsden. After noting how behavioural economics was being incorporated into government economic policy making, he admitted that, in his personal life, he had been using the same bank for the last thirty plus years, ditto his car insurance, until last year. If the government’s chief economist is such a victim of intertia bias and reluctance to switch, it doesn’t portend well for the much-vaunted power of competition and consumer choice to drive market outcomes (a concept dear to HM Treasury)..

Most Terrifying Conference Workshop (Ever!)

One of the parallel sessions, ‘You Are The Doctor’ investigated the how and why of medical errors – crucial, because these occur in around 10% of UK acute hospital admissions, of which up to 75% are caused by cognitive errors and behavioural biases. Workshop delegates played the role of doctor in an emergency room at the end of a long shift. Using video with actors in key roles, and with a prompt card to remind us of the cognitive and behavioural biases that lurk below our decision making, we had to make quick judgements with life-or-death consequences for the patient. Responses were collected (thankfully, anonymously) and aggregated, using electronic keypads. It’s a fair bet that pulse rates, anxiety and blood pressure levels in the conference room were a lot higher by the end of the workshop. Spoiler alert: we killed the patient. Cognitive biases can kill!

The Corridors of Power

BIT CEO David Halpern noted that behavioural economics and the impact of the Behavioural Insight Team had gone “from the seminar table to the Cabinet table.” This was attested by the presence of the head of the UK Civil Service, Cabinet Secretary Sir Jeremy Heywood, and Matthew Hancock MP, Cabinet Office Minister, Paymaster General (and co-author with Nadhim Zahwai MP of a book on the economic crash, ‘Masters of Nothing,’ which looks at the human behaviour that caused the crash).

Lost In Translation: There Is No French word for Nudge

Look up Nudge in the Collins online dictionary, and here’s what you get: 1. donner un (petit) coup de coude à - to nudge each other se donner des coups de coude. Noun : 1 (= push) coup m de coude - to give sb a nudge donner un (petit) coup de coude à qn. 2 (= gentle persuasion) coup m de pouce - to give sb a nudge in the right direction pousser doucement qn dans la bonne direction.  Or when, I asked a French delegate, I learned that the nearest is apparently “incitation.” Despite this, the French government does have a nudge unit. Only it's known as the Mission pour “Methodes d’ecoute et d’innovation.” No doubt that helps to keep the Academie Francaise on side.

My, How You’ve Grown

There were 800-900 of us in the Westminster Plaza for the Behavioural Exchange 2015, from around 20 countries. According to BIT CEO David Halpern, this is more than double the number of attendees at last year’s gathering in Sydney. It would have been hard to imagine this even five years ago, when mention of the words “behavioural economics” would normally generate a blank look.

Most Brilliant Conference Organisation

The BBC’s Home Editor, Mark Easton, who hosted Day 2, commented that it had been the best-organised conference he had ever attended. From a delegate’s perspective, that was also true.

Penultimate Nudge  

From the gent’s toilets at the event. (Now there’s a tricky photo assignment).

Find Out More

Everything will be posted online next week on storify    

And Finally, A Behaviour Workshops Nudge                   

To find out more about our workshops, based on behavioural economics, behavioural science, behavioural insight, applied social psychology and/or social marketing, please drop us an email: We offer workshops that can be tailored to meet the needs of most organisations. Follow us on Twitter @BehaviourW 

Wednesday, 17 June 2015

Passport to Temptation: A Nudge in the Wrong Direction from Her Majesty’s Passport Office?

One of us Behaviour Workshoppers just renewed our UK passport. The process was smooth and efficient (if expensive). So far, so impressive. The new passport arrived promptly, and included in the envelope was a leaflet entitled "Your new passport: important information." The leaflet includes the following comment "UK passports are valuable documents and criminals attempt to use them to commit crimes which may affect you personally, such as identity theft." Fair enough. We all know that it’s important to safeguard your passport, which is highly sought after by those with nefarious intentions.

So why is it that the passport arrives via the post, in an envelope emblazoned with "Her Majesty's Passport Office" and "This Is Not A Circular - Important Documents enclosed." In case there is any doubt as to what the envelope contains, it’s easy to do the Christmas present test, feel the contents and confirm, yes, it’s a passport.

If you live in a single dwelling with a private letter box this may not be a security risk (assuming it gets through the postal system), but for people whose post goes to a communal area, it could be a real problem. Given that credit cards and other valuable documents are now sent out in more anonymous packages, why not passports? It’s time to stop this Nudge in the wrong direction. After all, unlike you and me, not everyone out there is an honest and upstanding citizen….and Nudging is all about helping people to do the right thing. Not the wrong thing. 

Wednesday, 10 June 2015

Behavioural economics meets rock and roll: the power of framing

At the end of January 1981, the late John Lennon dominated the UK pop music charts with the sadly posthumous Imagine at no. 1 and Woman at no. 2. Adam Ant and Blondie were at no. 4 and no. 5 and we’ll draw a veil over Phil Collins at no. 3. Around the same date, Daniel Kahnemann and Amos Tversky published a paper in Science, The Framing of Decisions and the Psychology of Choice.  

The paper, now celebrated, demonstrated that people are sensitive to the framing of a decision problem, so that small differences in the presentation of data can have a substantial effect on their decisions. For example, consumers are influenced in their decisions by how choices and options are presented to them. In terms of behavioural economics, it’s clear that framing the same choice in terms of losses instead of gains can alter the decision. 

Recently, one of us Behaviour Workshoppers was approached with an interesting proposition, namely to record an interview about economics, behavioural economics, behaviour change, nudging and living carfree. So far so good. But rather than “would you like to record an interview on these subjects”, what really captured the attention was the framing – the invitation was to appear as a guest on the Economic Rockstar podcast. Same content, same issues, but what a frame!  Impossible to turn it down.

So hats off to Frank Conway, the man behind the Economic Rockstar podcast, for a brilliant piece of re-framing: how could anyone with a pulse refuse the invitation? Is it economics? Is it rock and roll? Listen up and decide for yourself – here’s the podcast. Or download the MP3. Meantime, Kahneman (still going) Tversky (sadly, no more), and rock and roll, (staggering on) we salute you! 

Friday, 27 March 2015

‘Go for a walk.’ Go on. Just. Go. For. A. Walk.

That’s what the House of Commons Select Committee on Health have told GPs that they should be telling their patients, according to this report in the Telegraph. Because we Brits are the some of the world’s most lazy people when it comes to physical activity - as the graphic below illustrates.

And because walking is good for health (who needs a gym?). And because practically anyone can do it. And because it’s free. And because you don’t need any special equipment. And because it’s good for the mind. And because you can start now, practically wherever you are. And because the National Institute of Health and Care Excellence (NIce) has said workers should be encouraged to stand up during meetings, and advised to walk or cycle to events outside their workplace. And because. And because. (Repeat ad infinitum).

Thursday, 22 January 2015

Walk this way

With so much attention devoted to changing behaviour to get people to take more exercise, one of the most simple things, and one which is often overlooked, is walking. Walking is accessible, available, sustainable, and (for most people) easy. Apart from a decent pair of shoes and appropriate clothing, it doesn't cost much money or require any special equipment. You don't need to book an appointment, do any training, or get yourself to a particular place - you can start at your own front door. 

So it was good to see our local weekly paper, The Brighton and Hove Independent, kicking off the New Year with a campaign to make 2015 the year of the pedestrian. And it was great that the current edition of the paper includes the article 'Our goal is to make Brightonand Hove a walkable city', an article that I wrote wearing my hat as an activist from Brighton and Hove Group of Living Streets, the advocacy group for pedestrians.

It's a subject that I cover frequently in my blog about carfree life, with its emphasis on walking and other ways to get around without using a car - which for specialists in public-health, obesity, road safety and the environment, goes under the general label of 'active transport.'  Walking – you know it makes sense.

Saturday, 10 January 2015

Hot off the press: Chapter by Behaviour Workshops in the just-published Handbook of Persuasion and Social Marketing

Brand spanking new for 2015, The Handbook of Persuasion and Social Marketing, a three volume magnum opus edited by Professor David W Stewart, and including a chapter by Behaviour Workshops (under our real names). Our chapter, which appears in Volume II, on “Conceptual, Theoretical and Strategic Dimensions,” takes a ‘compare and contrast’ look at social marketing and behavioural economics (or behavioral economics if you are reading this in the US).  

You’ll get the gist from the chapter title: Social Marketing and Behavioral Economics: Points of Contact? – but don't let that put you off: our workshops, based on our extensive programme of research, are highly practical and provide insights and examples of how the theories can be used in practical interventions to change behaviours. Or, if you prefer, behaviors.   

Monday, 5 January 2015

World Bank issues major report on behavioural factors and development

Last month the World Bank issued its World Development Report 2015: Mind, Society, and Behavior (their [US] spelling!). Interestingly, for an organisation which has often been associated with the standard economic orthodoxy, this report recognises that people do not always make deliberative, independent decisions based on careful self-interested calculations.

Instead, taking its cue from the behavioural sciences/behavioural economics the report notes that people often think quickly, use mental shortcuts and rely on shared mindsets. As the report states, by factoring this in, governments and other actors can design (development) programs that make it easier for individuals to cooperate in the pursuit of shared goals.

The report relates to areas such as early childhood development, productivity, household finance, health and health care and climate change, and includes case studies where development work has incorporated findings from behavioural science, using techniques such as framing, default setting, the importance of social norms, the use of commitment devices and recognising that timing matters, due to cognitive and mental depletion in decision making.

The report outlines three principles of human decision making: thinking automatically, thinking socially, and thinking with mental models. The consequences are that: much of human thinking is automatic and depends on whatever comes to mind most effortlessly; people are deeply social and will tend to cooperate as long as others do too, and we are highly influenced by social networks and norms; and most people do not invent new concepts, rather they use mental models drawn from their societies and shared histories to interpret their experiences.

As the report notes, focusing more closely on correctly defining and diagnosing problems can lead to better designed interventions. The report cautions that even experts’ initial assumptions about the causes of behaviour can be wrong, which means that it’s important to run pilots and trials to test a range of interventions. An important finding for politicians, policy makers and behaviour change specialists – and not just those involved in development work. Full report here

At Behaviour Workshops we run training workshops which draw on many of the tools and techniques featured in the World Bank report – providing insights and applications from behavioural economics and social marketing which can help organisations meet their objectives in a more cost-effective way. More information on a typical workshop here. There is an independent review of one of our workshops here on the Comms2pointO website by Carolyne Mitchell of South Lanarkshire Council, who commissioned it. 

You can contact us at or by calling 0845 094 5581.