Nudging behaviour

Behavioural science was brought into the centre of UK government when the 'Nudge Unit' (formally the Behavioural Insights Team) was set up within the Cabinet Office in 2010. The idea was to create effective policy interventions based on nudge theory – using suggestions and positive reinforcement rather than 'top-down' instruction and enforcement to change behaviour.

Nudge theory argues that if we wish to alter people's behaviour in a particular direction, it’s more effective to encourage positive choices rather than restricting unwanted behaviour with sanctions. "Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not," said Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, authors of the influential 2008 book Nudge which introduced nudge theory to a wide audience.

The standard policy approach, for instance to reduce energy consumption, would be to use taxation and subsidies to change prices, thereby affecting the price options available for people and influence their behaviour. The behavioural approach focuses instead on the way that choices are presented to people.

The Behavioural Insights Team identified several low-cost ways to improve policy delivery and save money. For example, tweaking the text of a reminder letter to inform people who failed to pay their tax that most other people had already paid, increased payment rates by over five percentage points.

Nudge theory has been applied across a range of areas, including economics, social psychology, political theory and business management.