NEWS29 May 2009

Nudge nudge, think think for Kingston University


UK— Kingston University is to embark upon a £1.1m research project that aims to investigate whether it is possible to nudge individual behaviour in a “socially desirable” direction by telling people what others are doing.

The three-year project, called Charm, will be conducted alongside Swansea University and the University of the West of England (UWE).

With a respondent base of 800 people the research will be conducted across three areas: electricity consumption, obesity and active lifestyles, and green activity among online social groups. Using mobile phones and Facebook to collect data, researchers will aim to see whether the group behaviours reported effect any change in an individual’s behaviour.

Lead researcher Ruth Rettie said that previous research showed that telling individuals what neighbours, colleagues and friends were doing affected their own actions.

She cited an example where hotel notices prompted guests to protect the environment by not leaving their towels out for washing every day. Rettie said, “This approach had only limited impact, but when hotels changed the wording to say ‘75 per cent of the people who have stayed in this room re-used their towels to help the environment’ – there was a marked drop in the number left out for washing. I think this shows that, ultimately, we all just want to be like other people.”

A range of gadgets will be employed to monitor behavioural change. The electricity consumption study will use a sensor attached to participants’ electricity supply feeding back information on their electricity usage. The sensors will also tell participants how much power their neighbours are using.

The activity lifestyle study uses an application that will monitor the daily physical activity of groups of friends and send feedback to them via their mobile phones.

The theory underlying Kingston’s research project was popularised last year by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge.