Take the example of getting more women on company boards, an issue widely championed by campaigners and indeed Prime Ministers, but often embodying a clear example of the ‘big mistake’. The normal centrepiece of campaigns to get more women on boards is a statistic along the lines ‘isn’t it shocking that only 25 per cent of board members are women?’ (less in some countries). It is shocking, but it’s also likely to be a message that inadvertently normalises the situation. On the other hand, if such campaigns made the equally valid point hat ’90 per cent of companies have women on their boards’, then the signalling is very different. Following discussions with Iris Bohnet, and expert on gender inequality, and Emily Walsh, special adviser to the UK’s Business Secretary, parts of the UK’s campaign to encourage more women on to boards was indeed reframed this way.
The extraordinary reductions in suicide resulting from changes in levels of carbon monoxide might have happened by accident, but the insight can be used to make deliberate changes that have reduced suicides. For example, a number of countries have introduced legal restrictions on the number of paracetamol tablets and similar everyday medications that can be bought in one go. There is not much to stop the determined buyer from going into several stores in a row and buying more pills, but it has been shown that in the UK alone such measure were associate with around 70 fewer suicides a year as a result of paracetamol ingestion (a 42 percent reduction), and an even bigger reduction of 61 per cent of patients needing a liver transplant as a result of damage from paracetamol. Similarly, there is evidence that where such pills are required to be sold in pop-out packs, rather than loose in a bottle, this also reduces suicide rates since the pills have to be taken out one at a time. A little friction, it turns out, is not always a bad thing.
During a famine in 1774, Frederik ordered a national cultivation programme. In a response typical of many towns, the people of Kolberg declared: “The things have neither small nor taste, not even the dogs will eat them, so what use are they to us?”
Frederick’s initial response was more a violent “shove” than a nudge – he threatened to cut the noses and ears off any peasant who did not plant potatoes. However, he soon changed tack. In modern parlance we’d say that he used a bit of “psychology”.
Legend has it that instead of issuing further threats, Frederik ordered his soldiers to establish a heavy and visible guard around the local royal potato fields, yet also instructed them to be deliberately lax in protecting them. At the same time, the local peasants noticed their king’s conspicuous admiration of potato flowers as well as the tubers themselves, and sneaked in to steal and plant the “royal crop”. Within a short time, many potatoes were stolen and soon being widely grown and eaten.
When the US Air Force faced opposition to its flying over residential neighbourhoods someone had the bright idea of circulating much more information about the different aircraft being flown. Though that didn’t reduce the noise level, it certainly change the reactions to it – and as any cognitive psychologist will tell you, most perception is interpretive. “Look – it’s the new F15!” feels very different from, “it’s another bloody plane flying overhead”.
As an aside, as battles continue over airport expansion in the UK and elsewhere, I’m inclined to think that a similar techniques might be used to persuade potentially affected residents as to the benefits of a new runway or airport by offering them generous annual vouchers for flights and holidays around the world from the airport. Rather like the US Air Force’s approach, it might dramatically change how you feel about the noise and be more effective than cash alone. “That’s my holiday to Barbados this year!” you’d think as a plane roars over, giving you a personal and positive interest in the outcome of expansion rather than simply seeing it as an irritation.
In the policy world, a good example comes from a programme known as the Nurse Family Partnership (NFP), originally developed and tested by David Olds in the USA. The programme involves a nursing practitioner befriending and supporting a young at-risk mother from the pre-natal stage through the child’s second birthday. It is a well-validated programme that has been shown to reduce violence and abuse of the child, improve educational attainment and even reduce the child’s rate of offending at the age of 15 compared with children from a similar background who did not participate in the programme (at least in the USA).
A less well known but fascinating detail of the NFP is that Olds noted when we introduced it into the UK was that the programme worked much better with mothers having their first child. This isn’t a marginal detail. It is an expensive programme, and so it is incredibly important to make sure that is focuses on the right people, and at the right time, to whom it will make a difference – young, first time mothers.
In general, we might take as an opening mantra something like “learn it first, learn it right”
In 1980, the Federal Republic of Germany (West Germany) introduced spot fines on motorcyclists not wearing helmets. The primary motivation was to reduce head injuries, but it had an unexpected and dramatic impact in a totally different area: thefts. In the wake of the change, motorcycle thefts fell by 60 per cent, and stayed down.
You might think that if a person intended to steal a bike, this change in the law would not make that much difference: they just had to remember to bring a helmet with them, or to steal one, too. But, it would seem, most offenders did not do this. It was extra hassle, and required forethought. Riders often carried their helmets with them, rather that leaving them on the bike. In short, the requirement to wear a helmet introduced ‘friction’ to the act of stealing a motorbike, with dramatic consequences.