Nudging: Efficiency Made Easy

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Britain has inspired the United States with their new approach to energy efficiency—or rather, old science used in a new way. In psychology, the term “nudging” does as it sounds: it nudges someone to perform a certain action. In Britain’s case, they are nudging people towards energy efficiency.

A small group of British psychologists have joined with economists to slowly transform the country’s outlook on energy efficiency. The group uses behavioral science to make small interventions in daily life. The goal is to make little changes that change behavior in a large way, and ultimately lead to big savings. These small changes serve to improve both individual actions and those of society. The group focuses on creating policies that stem from human nature, which makes it more intuitive for people to comfortably follow these policies.

Nudging originated in the United States, and became popular when Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein published Nudge in 2008. Their belief is that our actions do not always reflect our best self-interest. We often have biases and habits that do not lead us in the right direction. When we face a choice, we tend to stick with the easiest option – the default option. Be it your ringtone or your pension plan, default seems to be the most effortless. Nudging studies why people tend to make poor decisions, then tests small changes in how choices are presented. For example, putting fruit instead of candy at eye level in a cafeteria increases the chances of someone grabbing an apple instead of chocolate. Britain decided to test how they display other choices in their country, and how it changes decision-making.

Nudging’s popularity spread across the Atlantic where Prime Minister David Cameron has embraced its potential for the government to do more, for less. He set up the Behavioural Insights Team, also knows as the “nudge unit,” in 2010. This team now has 16 members and has performed over 50 different experiments.

In the past three years, the Team has doubled in size, and is about to grow even more. The Team nudged people to pay taxes on time, sign up for organ donation, give to charity, and even insulate their attics. These small adjustments have already saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds, according to the Team’s director, David Halpern. The Obama Administration has set up a similar team; nudging circles back to its country of origin.

The Behavioral Insights Team successfully nudged people to insulate their attics by their own choices. Britain makes conserving energy an easy decision. Rather than offering financial aid for insulating, Britain targeted one of the main reasons that people resist insulating their attics: the clutter. Halpern, the Team’s director, recalled the chief executive of an energy company telling him that the majority of people do not insulate their attic because it means having to clean it out. It is in human nature: we go with the easiest decision. Cleaning up piles of junk is often not the simplest route.

The Behavioral Insights Team devised a plan to motivate people to insulate their attics. The Team offered attic-clearing services, and people jumped at the opportunity. Insulation is a major factor in conserving energy and saving you money, all you need to do is take the first step. If you need a nudge, start spring-cleaning with your attic, or find a service to simplify the process for you. Once your attic is cleared, Dolphin does the rest. Contact Dolphin for suggestions on how to get started. We all need a nudge now and then, and this small step is a giant leap toward home energy efficiency.