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A Nudge in The Right (Behavioral) Direction
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I’ve just read an excellent journal article  entitled, "Menu positions influence soft drink selection at touchscreen kiosks" which investigated the extent to which companies can influence the soft drink consumers select on touchscreen kiosks. Armed with data from 511 UK based McDonald’s restaurants, the research team found that Coca-Cola sales decreased and Coke Zero sales increased as a result of simply changing their respective display position on touchscreen order kiosks i.e. moving the Coca-Cola icon from the first to the last soft drink choice available and Coke Zero from third to first.

 

512px-Denton_House_LI_03_-_Order_kiosk.jpgImage by Tdorante10 (CC BY-SA 4.0)Changing menu positions to influence soft drink selection is a great example of a 'nudge' intervention. Most commonly associated with the work of Nobel Prize winning economist and behavioral scientist Richard Thaler, a nudge is any small environmental feature that can attract our attention and influence our behavior. More specifically, according to Thaler, 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. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not."

 

Introducing your students to the concept of nudge interventions would be a great way to get them thinking about behavior change theory.

 

  1. How might the idea of "nudging" be used to get students to do things (e.g., study for a test) they might easily forget to do? See the article below for some ideas on this.
  2. Ask students to visit the most popular place to buy food (on campus or off) and take a picture of the counter where the register is.
  3. Look at these pictures and identify what products are the easiest for customers to buy? Candy or fruit? How might you re-arrange products near the counter in order to nudge healthier behavior?
  4. Take photos of the food isles. What products are at eye level? Those are also ones that customers are being subtlety nudged to buy. What products are on the bottom shelf?
  5. Have students devise their own nudge intervention. This could be a public health intervention, like the soft drink order display study or an intervention to encourage pro-environmental behavior etc.

 

A major takeaway from an exercise such as this is that it highlights the practical and applied benefits of studying human behavior. As Professor Peter Kinderman notes, "the point of psychology is not merely to observe, but to do something useful." With this in mind - and also as a means of helping your students plan their nudge intervention proposal - I highly recommend suggesting that they check out the work of The Behavioural Insights Team whose mission is to generate and apply behavioral insights to inform policy, improve public services and deliver results for citizens and society.

 

Asking students to design a nudge intervention is also a very useful way of highlighting both the benefits of, and the issues surrounding, the use of Randomised Controlled Trials (RCTs). Indeed, you might want to suggest to your students that an RCT should be part of their proposed intervention. To help them understand why, here are a couple of excellent resources:

 

 

Image by Tdorante10 (CC BY-SA 4.0)