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Summary

  • Human behaviour is key to the spread of coronavirus. Therefore, behavioural science is absolutely central to our fight against the pandemic
  • Nudging can provide an easy, inexpensive measure to support behaviour change strategies and thus promote guideline adherence
  • The UK, US and India were few countries that came into limelight as they noticeably tried to adapt Richard Thaler’s “Nudge Theory” to curb the spread of coronavirus

“A nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”- Richard Thaler

Back in 2017, when Richard H. Thaler of the University of Chicago won the Nobel Memorial Prize in economics for his contribution to behavioural economics, it was not only economists who wanted a piece of his venerated advice. Policymakers, governments, businessmen- everyone seemed eager to understand and implement his famous Nudge Theory. If we were to tell you what Thaler proposes through his Nudge Theory in a nutshell, it would be this- changing the way choices are presented to people can have a huge impact.

Unveiling Nudge Theory

Image by Comfreak from Pixabay

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The word “nudge” suggests friendly policy boosts that will inspire people to make decisions in the best of their self-interest. Nudge Theory proposes that indirect suggestion and positive reinforcement can influence people’s decision and actions, often without them realising. The concept is a fairly understated policy shift that prompts people to make decisions that are in their broad self-interest.

Nudge theory seeks to improve overall knowledge and management of the “heuristic” impacts on human behaviour, which is deemed fundamental to bringing about a good change in people. It primarily revolves around the design of choices, which has an influence on decisions one makes.

The theory is credited mainly to American academics Richard H Thaler and Cass R Sunstein and was popularised by the 2008 book, a major international best-seller- 'Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness'.

Breaking Down Nudge Theory with Basic Examples

Let us start with a basic (we expect this to be relatable!) example- joining a gym. Now, this could appear to be an “enforced change” to make one fitter, stronger, leaner. If one were to apply what can be referred to as a “nudge technique”- using the stairs could possibly lead to same changes expected out of the gym- one could get fitter, stronger, leaner. Likewise, think about forcing students to complete their homework (enforced change) vs making homework interesting (nudge technique)- results would bring about development but the nudge technique could prove to be a better approach.

Another simple yet crucial example of Nudge Theory that took place in the UK was the scheme of Big Bin Little Bin. Two bins were offered to households- one for regular waste and the other for recyclable one which was bigger. The idea was that if the recyclable bin was made bigger, citizens would recycle more and limit the space for regular waste. The technique had a bigger objective of promoting recycling, practising waste management while keeping the country clean.

In India, a developing nation, PM Modi often expresses that “nudging” on cleanliness, has led to immense transformations in the country.

You would now ponder- why are we discussing Nudge Theory now? Is there any relevance to the current phase the world is in? Can we implement it in some way to better our current (unprecedented) times? Well, we think- YES. Nudge Theory can do its bit on making us deal with the COVID-19 pandemic a little better.

Before we proceed, we would like to re-iterate- “Nudging” uses perceptions about mental processes to change behaviour via persuading and with positive assertion. Rather than forcing one to do something, nudging modifies environments in which things are to be done, choices to be made.

Nudge Theory Relevant Amid Pandemic?

The COVID-19 pandemic has wreaked havoc on global health, businesses, and economies alike as they try to flatten the curve. The onus of saving the world from the invisible enemy is not limited to representatives of the people and multilateral institutions but has entered every home as they practice social distancing and good hygiene.

COVID-19 has already propelled behavioural “nudges”- wash your hands regularly, refrain from touching your face, keep surfaces clean, do not shake hands, self-isolate if you get a unwell, and so on. These nudges/ simple lifestyle changes eventually are answers to “how will COVID-19 go away” while we await a vaccine.

With the concept of Nudge Theory and the awareness that coronavirus exists, think about this- a nudge can be something as effortless as setting hand sanitiser machines in more accessible spots or pulling attention towards them via visual signs. Another example that came into existence as people practiced social distancing was using floor signs at supermarkets to ensure that customers maintain a safe distance while purchasing groceries.

So much so, there were viral videos of celebrities singing the happy birthday song while they taught the technique of washing hands (an activity of about 2 minutes to ensure clean hands). The idea was to make this “new normal” activity fun while it continued to be one of the biggest “must-do’s” amid the pandemic- a cheap, effective, and minimally disruptive nudge.

Bottomline

How humans in the real-world act and think will frame our “new normal” and the future that awaits in a post COVID-19 world. Some virologists, epidemiologists and behavioural scientists have opined that Nudge Theory can help governments address myriad development and governance challenges in the face of the pandemic.

Note: We are not suggesting that Nudge Theory is the ultimate answer to a COVID-19 free world. However, its essence can truly help one adapt to changes towards a bigger and better cause.

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