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In effect, positioning an idea doesn’t merely “frame” it so that it carries a certain meaning; it actually defines the terms of the debate itself.
For example, by almost two-to-one, Americans say we are spending too much on “welfare” (42 percent) rather than too little (23 percent). Yet an overwhelming 68 percent of American think we are spending too little on “assistance to the poor,” versus a mere 8 percent who think we’re spending too much. Think about it: What is assistance to the poor? Welfare! So while the underlying policy in question may be the same, the definition — welfare versus assistance to the poor — and positioning make all the difference in public reaction. If the context is a government program itself, the process and the public hostility is significant. But if the context is the result of that government program, the support is significant.
Every day, each one of us is “nudged” by external factors and actors to change how we behave. Whether it’s the weather forecast, an advert on the train, or advice from a friend, we are all influenced by nudges. But what is a nudge? What is the human psychology behind their effectiveness? And when does a nudge become something more sinister – such as coercion or manipulation?
To explore this and more, Ian Sample speaks to the Harvard Law School’s Professor Cass Sunstein about the psychology and history of nudging, as well as some of the ethical quandaries explored in his new book The Ethics of Influence: Government in the the Age of Behavioural Science. We also hear from head of the UK’s ‘nudge unit’ (aka the behavioural insights team), Dr David Halpern, about how nudges are helping governments with tax repayments, more effective approaches to job seeking and reducing further education dropout rates.