The Art of Habit
by Matt Grist
The other day I attended ‘Nudge or Think: How experiments can help get Britain to the Big Society’; a presentation of research findings by the ESRC funded civic behaviour project, shared between Southampton and Manchester Universities.
The researchers found that ‘nudges’ worked best on very simple behaviours such as doing the recycling. However, the researchers also found that ‘nudges’ only brought about modest returns: for example, after door-to-door canvassing in an area, recycling went up 10%. Not insignificant, but not saving the planet either.
Aside from the marginal returns of 'nudges', I was struck by the lassitude the researchers had allowed themselves with the concept. Strictly speaking, canvassing people in this way refers not to 'nudging', rather to gentle encouragement. A 'nudge’ in the technical sense refers to changing the context of choices so as to guide which ones are made, and it works by tapping into long-evolved human tendencies such as the fear of losses.
Unfortunately for ‘nudgers’, there are only a few such tendencies that our brains invariably display. In order to reach beyond this limited array, the researchers at 'Nudge or Think' insisted ‘nudges’ tap into culturally specific habits, which is another way of saying ‘know your audience’.
In fact, their insistence that institutions (such as councils and civic organisations) talk to people and get to know their local habits, takes us beyond ‘nudging’ to what should be one of the central concerns of the Big Society project: how habits are produced and sustained. This is because habits are the medium through which the ‘soft power’ of social norms and shared practices shape communities for better or worse.
The sustenance and production of habits are ensured through continually adapting institutions. Given this, a truly progressive government should have a keen interest in conserving and creating the institutions through which citizens gain the power to be more autonomous and responsible (which may at times, of course, consist in government ‘getting out of the way’). ‘Nudging’, however loosely interpreted, is not enough. We cannot just manipulate existing habits: we need to continue to produce and sustain them in the first place.
So supporting and invigorating the institutions (like families, schools, and civic organisations) that build productive habits should be a central concern of anyone committed to the Big Society idea. This is precisely what Demos does through its work on character, family and society. Whether this is left or right wing is of little interest. What is important is that it is radical in the original sense of the word: it gets to the root of the problem.