OPINION19 July 2011

A liberal sprinkling of behavioural economics


In the first of a new series, The Behavioural Architects’ Crawford Hollingworth looks at examples of behavioural economics in action around the world. This week: voting and salt in the US and Argentina.

Over the last few years we have seen many governments around the world leveraging aspects of behavioural economics (BE) to nudge or steer citizens in the right direction. This can take many overt and covert forms, from playing with our default option – what happens if you do nothing – in pensions, to opt-out versus opt-in organ donation schemes. From a government perspective one of the attractions of BE is that it is very much about direct behavioural action versus more complex and often more time-consuming attitudinal change. And, if we are honest, the most powerful behavioural changes we have seen recently have been led behaviourally rather than attitudinally.

One of the most exciting uses of BE, which started ripples around the world, took place during the US presidential elections in 2008.

“The most powerful motivator for action is the suggestion that everyone is doing it, whether it’s getting hotel guests to reuse towels or National Park visitors to stay on marked trails”

The simple truth at the time was that the higher the turn-out at the polls the more chance Barack Obama had of winning the election. About two weeks before election day, when changing the campaign platform wasn’t really an option, Obama’s team got together a secret advisory group of 29 of the nation’s leading behaviourists (psychologists and economists) to develop the best ‘get out to vote’ script. Together they determined one sure-fire way of getting people to the polls. And it was this simple. All communication channels were fed with one simple message: “A record turnout is expected.”

The BE-savvy team knew that the most powerful motivator for action is the suggestion that everyone is doing it. Whether it’s getting hotel guests to reuse towels or National Park visitors to stay on marked trails, “People want to do what others will do,” says Robert Cialdini, author of the bestseller Influence. It’s a piece of behavioural genius. And it worked.

The other week in Buenos Aires we saw a fantastic example of a government changing the default setting. How many of you reach for the salt and sprinkle it liberally onto your food without tasting it first? Be honest, I know I do. Yet we all accept that there is a correlation between high salt use and hypertension. An estimated 3.7m residents of Buenos Aires suffer from hypertension, and on average consume 13g of salt per day, nearly three times the recommended limit.

So, how to change this behaviour? In a clever move, the local government decided to take the action out of our hands, so to speak. Restaurants in Buenos Aires now have to remove salt shakers from the tables – by law. If customers want salt they have to ask for it first. In other words, they need to opt in for salt, making it a very conscious decision. Simple and so clever, forcing people out of autopilot and probably making them taste their food first.

The agreement between the Ministry of Health for the Buenos Aires province and the Union of Tourism, Hotel and Food Service Workers was signed in June 2011. This makes me think we should change lots of default settings; maybe Diet Coke becomes the new original and the old original is renamed Coke Extra, making sugar-free the default option. Or imagine that in a cinema the default popcorn size is an old-fashioned small, and regular fries become what we call small fries today. Just imagine the positive impact. I can feel the pounds falling off.

Crawford Hollingworth is a founder of The Behavioural Architects