How 'nudging' can change behavior

Nudging helped cut antibiotic prescription rates, one study found

Sometimes a little push is all it takes to move the dial: Two new studies suggest that nudging people toward improved behavior results in better outcomes, Cass Sunstein writes for Bloomberg.

The reports, one from the White House's Social and Behavioral Sciences Team and the other from the U.K.'s  Behavioural Insights Team, found that certain nudges successfully encouraged people to take part in public programs and follow rules and regulations.  

The U.S. behavioral sciences team partnered with the Department of Defense to develop a pilot program aimed at increasing the amount that military service members put into savings. About 87 percent of civilian federal employees are enrolled in the national Thrift Savings Plan, compared with 44 percent of military service members.

In the program, service members were asked once they arrived at a new military base whether they wanted to contribute to the savings plan. Simply mentioning the plan had a significant effect—the question boosted enrollment by 8.3 percentage points.

Reminders can also be extremely useful, as demonstrated by the Education Department. The U.S. Social and Behavioral Sciences Team collaborated with the department to remind about 300,000 student borrowers to provide updated information needed to use repayment plans. The share of students who did provide the necessary information increased 8 percent.

Meanwhile, the U.K.'s team emphasized the need for making processes more efficient in its nudging campaigns. With the adage "make it easy" at the core of its efforts, the team has successfully used letters to:

  • Promote tax compliance by corporations;
  • Help farmers obtain small loans; and
  • Reduce high antibiotic prescription rates.

For instance, the team in a letter informed doctors who prescribed antibiotics at particularly high rates that their peers prescribed at lower rates. Over the next six months, the doctors who received the letter reduced their antibiotic prescription rates by more than 3 percent, representing about 73,000 fewer prescriptions.

Sunstein says that such nudging efforts could yield dividends throughout the U.S. government. He notes that a guidance document from President Barack Obama's Science Adviser, John Holdren, asks federal agencies to consider:

  • Streamlining program enrollment processes;
  • Simplifying forms;
  • Using automatic enrollments;
  • Making information more visible; and
  • Using social comparisons of peer behavior.
"While behavioral science has informed some major initiatives from the Obama administration, we could see an increased effort to make a dent in the most serious policy problems," Sunstein concludes. "There is growing evidence that behaviorally informed approaches can help officials to tackle the largest challenges, including persistent poverty, inadequate education, climate change, and crime (Sunstein, Bloomberg, 9/20).

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