Influencing a nudge-able audience

21 July 2021

The world is nudging us all the time: stop signs, ‘wet floor’ signs, even the beeping sound your fridge makes when you leave it open too long. These nudges encourage us to think and act differently – to make better decisions.

According to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book Nudge, a nudge is anything that significantly alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way, without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.

Nudging has been used in public policy. The Behavioural Insights Team in the UK – also known as The Nudge Unit – partnered with the UK government to apply this behavioural science to nudge the UK public to increase the number of organ donors, improve payment rates of fines, and to follow social distancing rules during the pandemic (among many other things).

In this article I will talk about three types of nudges: framing, social influence and positive affirmation. For each, I will examine the extent to which a small nudge can help improve the outcomes of a research communication campaign.

Three nudges for effective communication

Nudge 1: Framing

According to Nudge, choices depend, in part, on how problems are stated. This means that people will pay more or less attention depending on how we present the same information. How can this be used when communicating research?

We all want our research to make someone think differently. To have that ‘ah ha!’ moment. A nudge can help. Let’s say a research team wants to share the following information on members of parliament (MPs) attendance in parliamentary sessions.

Only 20% of MPs attended all parliamentary sessions last month.

Surprising? Maybe not.

Let’s try framing this information differently.

A majority of MPs (80% of the entire parliament) did not attend all parliamentary sessions last month.

Now that sounds shocking.

This is a very simple re-framing, but it’s effective. The re-framing highlights the severity of the problem, which means people are more likely to pay attention to the message.

Nudge 2: Social influence

As unique and independent as we think we are, we are influenced by the words and actions of others.

According to Nudge, when popular people convey information with confidence, it has a strong influence on our own decisions and judgement. Why do brands pick the most popular celebrities to endorse their products? Because we are more likely to be influenced by what they say.

While using a celebrity isn’t always an option when sharing research with the public, there are other highly influential people who can do the job. For example, when a research team struggles to get traction on a post on social media, they can ask a popular third party to share it. We have had our content shared by politicians, popular journalists and even comedians. This has helped nudge audiences into acknowledging our content as current, interesting and note-worthy.

Nudge 3: Positive affirmation

Let’s talk about peer pressure. It doesn’t only exist in classrooms and playgrounds. Peer pressure exists at every level, even in government. According to Nudge, if you care about what others think about you, then you might go along with the crowd to avoid being the odd one out.

Peer pressure can be used as a nudge in two ways. Let’s go back to our parliament example. First, you can highlight bad behaviour to the public, such as low attendance in parliament (as shown above). Second, you can highlight good behaviour to the public, such as good attendance in parliament. Both have similar effects – making parliamentarians answerable to the people who elected them. The latter – a positive affirmation – can be a form of encouragement for parliamentarians to continue their good behaviour in the eyes of the public.

Here’s an example. My organisation runs a web platform that profiles the activity of all 225 MPs in the Sri Lankan parliament. Before every election, we encourage voters to educate themselves on the past performance of re-contesting MPs before choosing their candidate.

Before the 2020 parliamentary election, we looked for ways to acknowledge the good performance of MPs running for another term. We came up with an award system, placing ‘top performer’ and ’best attendance’ badges on MP profiles on the platform. These badges became popular on social media, as MPs started sharing them as part of their election campaigns.

The primary group being nudged here is the set of MPs re-contesting in the election. If you publicly acknowledge the good behaviour of public servants, they are encouraged, or even pressured, to keep it up because they are vulnerable to public scrutiny.

The badges also helped nudge another group: the voters. By creating these badges, we helped voters take note of MPs who have performed better than their peers in parliament.

Three nudges, three tips

The takeaways are simple:

  1. Framing: When communicating research findings, look for different ways of saying the same thing. You are not twisting information, just framing it so it is received in the way you want it to be.
  2. Social influence: Identify ‘influencers’ in your field and get them to share your research. Sometimes people just need to hear it from someone popular.
  3. Positive affirmation: Don’t always focus on what policymakers and politicians are not Give credit where credit is due and encourage good folks to keep being good.

These three nudges are just starting points – there are endless opportunities for you to use a nudge to communicate research more effectively. So, the next time you want people to notice your research, try a little nudge.