FEATURE13 January 2016

The master of nudge

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Behavioural science Features Impact Public Sector UK

David Halpern leads social purpose organisation The Behavioural Insights Team, the world’s first government institution dedicated to applying behavioural sciences. He talks to Jane Bainbridge about persuasion, policy and police recruitment


The idea of implementing subtle psychology to encourage people to alter a behaviour is not a new one. In the 1700s, Frederick the Great of Prussia soon realised that using threats to try to push the population into switching from grains to potatoes – to alleviate his cereal shortage – was not working. So he ditched the warnings that he would cut off the noses of people who didn’t plant potatoes and, instead, set up an armed guard around his own potato fields. Before long, people were sneaking in to steal the crop and plant their own tubers – and potatoes had become a staple. 

Today, persuasion is viewed as a science and, in the UK, David Halpern has been at the forefront of its adoption in policy-making. As CEO of The Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) – set up by Prime Minister David Cameron in 2010 and often referred to as the Nudge Unit – Halpern has been putting ...