Nudging our way forward

By Kimber Haddix McKay, Senior Advisor – Innovation and Best Practice

How do you interest people in changing their behaviour?

Findings from anthropology, behavioural economics and psychology (and, personally, the experience of parenting, interacting with, or being a teenager) have shown that oftentimes a suggestion works better than a directive. Development practitioners have seen time and again that simply telling people to do things frequently fails. Rather, a more subtle approach, grounded in a sound and culturally nuanced foundation can really help cross barriers and forge new understandings.

Recently, Adara helped develop a manual now adopted by USAID called Essential WASH Actions. This manual focuses on developing trainers’ skill in teaching people about improvements in water, sanitation, and hygiene, as well as the kinds of behaviour changes that are recommended. This kind of program requires a thorough understanding of the cultures of purity and pollution, the sacred and the profane, which influence behaviour every day in Nepal. It also requires a skilled and empathetic recognition of how people commonly fail to reach ‘ideal’ WASH related outcomes, due to lack of water, soap, time and so forth. Understanding the social structures underlying behaviour well enough to then influence them is critical. And how to influence behaviour is not simple. It’s been studied for centuries. This topic has received quite a bit of attention recently. Last month, the Nobel Prize in Economics  was awarded to a theorist named Richard Thaler in recognition of the merit of his ‘Nudge Theory’

Just give a little nudge

Nudge theory is based on the idea that  humans don’t always do what’s best for us. But we also don’t always do as told. Instead, our behaviour is frequently and powerfully influenced by the suggestions and encouragements around us. The important thing for us in the development sphere to recognise is that nudge theory’s approach to changing behaviour fits extremely well with an emphasis on understanding what influences people’s behaviour in the settings in which they live. A frequently cited example of nudge theory in action is the practice of etching the image of a fly into the porcelain of urinals in Schipol Airport in Amsterdam. The intent of this exercise was to ‘improve the aim’. Who could resist? The importance of nudge theory lies in its ability to spur us to think about how to influence behaviour in an effective fashion that helps our work in health and education achieve the best outcomes. It’s an approach based on encouragement, not compulsion, which fits well with the approaches we have always embraced at Adara.

Where do we take it from here?

Sometimes people resist adopting new behaviours or habits because of inertia, or because they lack the tools to perceive and choose among new patterns. Nudging encourages new behaviour by, for example, by making new options available that are amusing, relatively cheap to adopt, or incentivized by positive recognition. Making clean toilets desirable when they are not already can be achieved through programmes that reward with awards and community recognition of the cleanest toilet. Quickly, people also realise  that using a clean toilet is vastly preferable to using one that is not. Usage rates will follow, and new patterns of behaviour can spread across the community

We all know how easy it is to get stuck in sub-optimal behaviour patterns, especially when we regard alternatives to be costly in terms of money, risk, time, or another valuable currency. Nudge theory is an important arrow in the quiver of any behaviour change specialist or development practitioner, and we may all benefit by thinking of ways to use it to the best advantage of our programmes.

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