A nudge could save Jamaica billions!

By Henry J Lewis and Ijah Thompson

Tuesday, September 18, 2018

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IMAGINE if Jamaicans finally got the message and started healthy eating, exercising regularly, drinking less sugary drinks, and reducing their salt intake. What would happen? The incidence of obesity and hypertension would fall precipitously, and thus the expensive health problems that come with it. The country would save billions of dollars in treatments, surgery costs, health insurance expenses, etc. It would be a win-win for the Government and citizens alike.

What if the Government knew a way to enhance the driving experience of frustrated motorists in Kingston and St Andrew without causing nightmares trying to get to and from home daily on some thoroughfares? There would be minimal loss of productivity, drivers will know when and where to drive long in advance, and businesses will not lose hundreds of thousands of dollars as a result of development that is intended to make life better.

And, imagine if the Government, the Church, and parents knew how to prevent young men at risk from getting into gangs which creates a vicious cycle of crime and violence? We would have safer communities and a lower crime rate.

No, I am not dreaming, all of this is possible if we understand that significant changes and outcomes are often the result of the accumulation of small nudges for good and for bad.

It should not be lost on us that we live in a world of large systems, of markets and nation-states, of multinational organisations, of communities, and they all have power and influence. However, everyday, and in a thousand ways we all nudge each other — a little push, a small tug — in order to achieve desired behaviour and outcomes. A society is a world of informal nudges, and Jamaica is no different.

Our behaviour is a function of the micro and the macro, the internal and external influences. The internal are mainly about the genetic and personal givens; the external about the structures, situations; and then there is the in-between of learned behaviour.

In many cases, if government agencies and policymakers have a better understanding of human beings and human decision-making they can help the citizenry achieve broadly shared goals like better health, lower crime rates, increase attendance at school, higher exam grades, and less confusion for the motoring public and, in this way, improve individual well-being.

Drawing on insights from modern behavioural and social sciences can generate new kinds of interventions that can be highly cost-effective for our policymakers if they only knew what to do.

What are nudges?

A nudge, as defined by behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, is a way of changing the environment in which decisions are made without meaningfully changing financial incentives. They (nudges) change the decision-making context that work with cognitive biases and help prompt us, in subtle ways that often function below the level of our awareness, to make decisions that leave us and usually our society better off.

These techniques, when used ethically, can be transformational for individuals, organisations, and even an entire society. Used right a nudge is a very small action or change in environment, which makes it easier for you to make the decision that's best for you, without forcing you to decide a certain way. For example, if a supermarket wants shoppers to buy healthier food, they can create an express line for health food only; or if they want children to consume fewer candies, instead of putting candies at the check-out line they can replace it with healthy snacks.

A nudge in the wrong direction would be this question: “Do you care for large fries for only $30 extra?” Nudges create many possibilities and dangers. One of the most interesting of the dangers created by nudges relates to the attention given to behaviour changes that are symptoms rather than foundational causes of behaviour.

Nudge interventions are scientifically tried and tested behavioural interventions that are:

* superior in cost-effectiveness, saving both governments and institutions billions of dollars at a fraction of the cost of traditional measures — incentives, regulation, taxation, etc.

* superior in results, allowing organisations and teams to more predictably achieve their targets, such as poverty impact reduction, health cost reduction, energy and climate cost reduction, etc.

* superior in user-friendliness, providing groups and individuals with the autonomy to easily choose to or not choose to have the intervention where their preferences are suited to alternative measures or outcomes.

Nudging stands apart from the traditional approaches for achieving desired behaviour change or their outcomes through the superior foundation on which it has being developed. Since some have argued that the Government is a monopoly with coercive power, we should ensure that the Government's use of nudge to change behaviour maintains choice and freedom and protects against oppression and abuse. If they use nudges right, governments and large institutions can spur wise decisions at scale, and thus make life better for everyone.

However, they should follow the three simple principles of nudges. These principles should guide the use of nudges:

*All nudging should be transparent and never misleading.

* It should be as easy as possible to opt out of the nudge, preferably with as little as one mouse click.

* There should be good reason to believe that the behaviour being encouraged will improve the well-being of those being nudged.

Filling the gap

If we in Jamaica are to find our way beyond our current challenges as a society we will need more than our traditional tools used for policymaking. As someone said, “Old ways wouldn't open new doors.” Our carrot-and-stick incentives, rules and regulations approach will not cut it. We need to open up the full toolkit of behavioural science and a deep understanding of beings and their many selves, then craft interventions that will empower and enhance their well-being, especially the poor.

Poverty is not only a deficit in material resources but also a context in which decisions are made. Policymakers must ensure that the choice architecture of those with limited resources enable them to break out of negative cycles. It simply is about most consistently engaging in a more systematic, yet pragmatic use of behavioural insights for the achievement of more human-oriented versus traditional models of ideal of humanity understandings and evaluations to better plan for, predict, and support human development and welfare.

The purpose of nudge is not to deal with the symptomatic problems of society, it should be designed to deal with the more fundamental issues. It cannot be a case in which the society keeps producing this problem, wherein we help one set of people, and the problem keeps recurring. Nudges must alert us to the causal cycles of behaviour and, through nudges, design interventions to break these causal cycles that result in people drifting into (informally sometimes) bad behaviour which entraps them into a vicious cycle of unproductiveness and inefficiencies. The promise of nudging is to do something simple that can break the cycle, and start a virtuous circle of causal escalating causation of growth and human flourishing.

Governments and private sector interests have no excuse for increasing the human flourishing of citizens and customers. I was happy to learn that current research is being done on the choice architecture of public order in societies, traffic management, health behaviour, and business efficiencies by the Behavioural Change and Nudge Group (BEchaNge) in the Human Resource Development Unit at The University of the West Indies, Mona. Let's nudge for good and change, Jamaica!

Henry J Lewis is a lecturer at the University of Technology, Jamaica, School of Humanities and Social Sciences. Dr Ijah Thompson, MD, is a PhD student in organizational behaviour at the University of the West Indies, Mona. Send comments to the Observer or

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