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OPINION16 September 2009

Person shaping

There were some great examples of how (and how not) to influence people’s behaviour on Danny Finkelstein’s programme ‘Persuading us to be good’ on Radio 4 last night.

There were some great examples of how (and how not) to influence people’s behaviour on Danny Finkelstein’s programme ‘Persuading us to be good’ on Radio 4 last night. (NB the audio is only available online for a limited time, and only in the UK)

Looking at the theory and practice of “the new science of persuasion”, Finkelstein spoke to thinkers including Robert Cialdini, Richard Thaler (co-author of Nudge) and politicians including shadow chancellor George Osborne.

It turns out that much of the government’s efforts to get people to do things like not smoke, recycle more and so on, are doomed to failure. And I have to say, having sat through countless spectacularly misjudged public information campaigns, it was nice to hear these ideas articulated. One particular pitfall (which Cialdini calls “the great mistake”) is to highlight widespread bad behaviour – an approach that falls into the trap of reinforcing an apparent social norm, which people then tend to conform with. D’oh!

Finkelstein introduced the slightly scary new phrase ‘person shaping’, which some local councils are using to describe their efforts to influence behaviour. “Politicians will run a mile from those words,” he said. “But it is in effect what they will be doing. There will be people who will be uncomfortable about government learning how to manipulate us, but that naively assumes that they’re not trying to manipulate us now. They are. They’re just doing it badly.”

One of the persuasive techniques being tried out by Barnet Council in north London sounded a lot like the social science version of a push poll – door-to-door interviewers asking people what they’re doing to go green (turning thermostats down, walking the kids to school etc), ticking the actions off on a list, then asking people to make a pledge to do more. The focus was on making a personal commitment in front of another person, but the act of being taken through one’s bad behaviour point by point in a survey must have some impact too.

Persuasive techniques based on simple, effective communication rather than financial incentives or expensive campaigns, have a chance to gain even more traction at a time when government doesn’t have a great deal of money to spend on such things. The Conservatives are apparently already showing a keen interest.

In the future, expect to be nudged rather than nagged.


1 Comment

10 years ago

Very interesting to hear this. An intersting avenue on this kind of communication research is to look at group based influence. Members of a group are often more likely to believe, and act on messages from members of thier own group. In a sense non-smoking campaigns for example often communicate as a non-smoker perspective, which will lead to smokers ignoring the message soley due to its sourse.

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