The power of scarcity: we want what we can’t have

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.

Excerpt from: Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference by David Halpern

Smart way of reframing the irritating noise of planes flying overhead

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.

Excerpt from: Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference by David Halpern

If you want to change behaviour, get people early before their habits harden

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”

Excerpt from: Inside the Nudge Unit: How small changes can make a big difference by David Halpern