A (British) conservative for Nudge

David Cameron, head of the Conservative Party in the United Kingdom, embraces Nudge in a speech today on social innovation. Cameron lays out three principles for structuring the relationship between government and citizens. All three are Nudge-friendly; the first is excerpted below. Read the full speech here.

The first principle is, in fact, an old insight and an instinctive one for Conservatives, but it has more relevance than ever in today’s new world. It’s called going with the grain of human nature. Policy-making must always take into account how people actually behave – not how an artificial system would like them to behave.

The American academic Robert Cialdini has made a huge contribution to what we know about this. In jargon: he calls it social norms. In plain English: it means recognising that one of the most important influences on people’s behaviour is what other people do. With the right prompting – or what Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler in their latest book have called a “Nudge” – we’ll change our behaviour to fit in with what we see around us. Take energy efficiency. We’ve had endless government targets and government drives – but we could be doing something so much better. And at a time of rising fuel costs this really matters.

If you keep telling people from above “you must be more energy efficient” not much happens. If you put the typical electricity bill for a house like theirs in a neighbourhood like theirs, it transforms their behaviour.

We’ve got to get out of thinking that the only way of improving the environment is by introducing swathes of top down instruction. We’ve got to stop thinking that if government tells people what to do – they’ll do it. Instead, we’ve got to harness the power of social norms to bring about social change.

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