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The conscious and intelligent manipulation of the organized habits and opinions of the masses is an important element in democratic society… Vast numbers of human beings must cooperate in this manner if they are to live together as a smoothly functioning society.

— Edward Bernays

Behavioral “nudging” is taking over the world. Businesses, nonprofits, and governments are sprouting entire departments that design psychological tricks to change people’s behavior. When we need people to quit smoking, drive safely, or use their new smartphone properly, it’s often not enough to spend millions on new adverts or include an instruction manual. We’ve been telling people to stop smoking and eat healthily for decades, but their existing habits make it too difficult to simply follow instructions. We are all too tired, too busy, and too lacking in willpower to do all the things we are supposed to do.

Here enters the world of behavioral science. Rather than repeatedly telling brick walls to do better, we can use research from experimental psychology to design interventions that actually work. For example, we know that laziness is common, and that even when we are aware of a good idea, we still often don’t get around to doing it.

Consider the problem of organ donation. Many of us believe that donating our organs when we die is a great idea: we will save lives and contribute to scientific progress by giving away body parts when we are too dead to use them. And yet, too many of us still haven’t opted in for the program. It was only a couple of years ago, while I lived in the UK, that I finally found the opportunity while renewing my driver’s license. A compulsory message asked me (I am paraphrasing), “Hey, we’re going to donate your organs when you die. Is that cool with you?”. Of course it was cool with me, and I’m glad they finally asked.

This kind of opt-out rather than opt-in approach is useful because it gets around our lazier instincts. Countries with opt-out rather than opt-in programs end up with a greater number of liver and kidney transplants. If a simple technique like this can nudge us toward donating our cherished organs, then there are likely to be many other amazing outcomes it can achieve.

A recent study tackled the issue of hand-washing. Despite the title of this article, this is a serious problem. When medical staff or workers in other infection-ridden industries forget to wash their hands, people can die. Stickers on the wall that say “Please wash your hands” just don’t work well enough. So what else can we do?

Perhaps “the decoy effect” could help. This is a strategy frequently used in marketing, where a decoy product, which a business knows nobody will ever buy, can enhance the allure of another more realistic product. For example, imagine a magazine subscription with two options: an online-only option that costs $59 for a year, and an option offering both online and print versions for a total of $125 a year. As Dan Ariely explains in his book, with only these two options available, the large majority of subscribers choose the cheaper online-only version. But introduce a third nonsense option next to the other two, which offers a print-only version for $125, and suddenly preferences shift entirely. Now, an even larger majority of subscribers choose the expensive print-plus-online option rather than the cheaper online-only version. And that’s purely because the print-only decoy made the identically-priced print-plus-online option look so much better. Although nobody picks the decoy itself, its presence makes them feel “woah, the print-plus-online option is such a great deal because it’s the same price as print-only”. So their preference shifts from the cheapest online-only option toward the more expensive “good deal”.

A team of researchers from the US and China tested whether they could use the decoy effect to encourage food-factory factory workers to wash their hands more often. They went into a factory where workers were supplied with a sanitizer spray on their work desks, and placed an additional sanitizer squeeze bottle next to the spray on half of the desks. This was the decoy: it was just as hygienic as the spray, but it was less convenient to use because it required more effort to turn the squeeze bottle over and apply the hand sanitizer. So in effect, rather like the magazine subscription example I gave earlier, workers had three options: don’t clean at all (convenient but unhygienic), clean with the spray bottle (somewhat inconvenient but hygienic), or clean with the squeeze bottle (very inconvenient but hygienic).

Among the group of workers who saw no change on their desks and had access to only their normal spray bottle (let’s call them the control group), around 70% passed sanitary requirements in a test. But for the group of workers with the additional decoy squeeze bottle on their desk, pass rates were at around 90%. And that was because they increased their usage of the original spray bottle, which all workers, including those in the control group, had continuous access to. In a second experiment that replaced the squeeze bottle with an even less convenient decoy for workers, namely a sanitizing basin within which workers had to soak their hands for 30 seconds, results were even stronger. Across the 20 days of the intervention, sanitary test pass rates increased to an average of 98%, thanks to the convenient charm of the ordinary spray bottle sitting on the desk.

* * *

We are sorest bent and troubled by invisible hands.

— Friedrich Nietzsche

Many people are understandably concerned about a world of nudges. Isn’t it psychological manipulation and possibly even brainwashing? If governments and businesses can use it against us, for bad rather than for good, are we in trouble?

If it makes you feel any better, you should know that organizations have been nudging you, and you have been nudging other people, for a long time. It just hasn’t previously had a consistent formal name. For decades, advertisers have been pushing your buttons and pulling your strings with images of attractive famous people and overhyped products. Retailers have been arranging their products in ways that make you more likely to pick them up. And we’ve all been adjusting our language and behavior to enhance our appearance in front of other people. We are built to convince others to like us and help us, and we are also built to respond predictably to the nice or nasty actions of everybody else. Whether we talk about angry mobs on Twitter or typical everyday conversations with friends, behavior is predictable enough that the world makes sense.

If nudging did not work at all, we would be living in a troubling and messy world. Life is more pleasant when we understand what’s going on, and people are behaving as we expect. We generally avoid uncertainty because it can be dangerous. A natural consequence of this healthy predictable mindset is that other people can manipulate it. Casinos make us gamble more, businesses sell us damaging products like cigarettes, and social pressure pushes us into situations we’d rather avoid. But we can’t forget the countless good things: health services can encourage us to prolong our lives, digital products can simplify our lives, and society can urge us to conform to positive social values. As long as we keep our wits about us, we can maintain some control over which influences we choose to allow into our own life, and which pressures we choose to reject.

There will always be external forces in our lives, outside our awareness, that push our behavior in particular directions. It simply comes with the job description of being human. With some additional attention to our motivations and reasoning each time we make an important decision, we can give ourselves the best chance of avoiding harmful behaviors and maximizing the actions that are good for us. We don’t need to worry about manipulation when it is in our interest and helping to increase our health and happiness. If you really want your pals to sanitize before leaving your bathroom, just put a particularly unpleasant soap dispenser right next to the normal soap.

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Since writing this article, I have come across an important note from an editor at Psychological Science, the journal that published the original food factory study. You can read his comments here. After he discusses an investigation into the data from the research team, his conclusion states: “These considerations undermine confidence in these data. But, in my opinion, they do not constitute clear evidence of fraud. I also note that Li and Sun [authors of the work] cooperated very helpfully in the investigation of this case.”

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