Posts Tagged Social Sciences

A little bit of “nudging” on London’s South Bank

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Regular readers of this blog (?!?!?) will be well aware of my interest in all forms of human/social psychology and in particular my interest in the role of behavioural and social psychology in managing change.

It’s an area of study that’s become quite sexy of late, perhaps with the poster child being Steve Hilton himself, stripped bare and holding a well thumbed copy of “Nudge” in a strategic position for the annual Conservative Party’s WI calendar.

It’s all rather simple really. Just a recognition of what psychologists have been telling us for some time. How we make decisions/choices is a much more subconcious and often malleable process than we might like to imagine – a process which might be influenced (deliberately or otherwise) by a myriad of  subtle (or not so subtle) factors including deliberate commercial or political “nudging”.

No point in me regurgitating a century of study here. Just pick up an one of: “Nudge”, “The Tipping Point“, “Blink”, “59 Seconds: Think a little Change a Lot”, “Freakonomics” or “How we Decide (the list is potentially enormous) and indulge yourself.  In my opinion anyone embarking on a career in advertising, political policy, sales, marketing, change management, branding or religious outreach (Amen) should be forced to read all of these tomes and a few others besides before they darken the door of any self respecting employer in any one of those “industries”.  An interest in and understanding of the psychology and subtlety of human behaviour should be de-rigour for all.

I’ve been interested in the varied work of the in London for some time. Not least because I get to spend hallowed time most weeks in the company of one of it’s leading brand thinkers – Sean McKnight. At the end of last week The Engine Group (EG)  had this little piece on their web-blog: on the subject of behavioural psychology (or behavioural economics if you will). I thought it was good that EG are exposing more of their disparate teams to this discipline (although I’d blithely assumed they’d all be light years ahead in their public reflections) but more importantly it did make me think about a lovely example of behavioural nudging in action which I saw on Friday in London.

Opposite Gabriel’s Wharf on the South Bank, you will, during the course of the year, find a group of folks who use the small sandbank there to sand sculpt. They’ve been dong this for years. I’ll occasionally throw 50p down into the circle they’ve drawn in the sand to collect tips but never more. But of late they have adopted a new tactic to nudge us into giving “more generously”. They have set up two yellow buckets with a small portable bicycle bell set inside each one. There is a little note beneath each bucket inviting onlookers to throw some tips and “See if you can ring the bell”.

I invite you to pop along and watch what happens. Based on the last two five minute visits I’ve made, I  predict their tips are up maybe 300% minimum.

But why?

Because now not only are people throwing coins (tips) to reflect their appreciation of the sand sculptures; they are throwing coins to – much more importantly (and in some cases it seemed, exclusively) – see if they can make a small bell, in the bottom of a yellow bucket go ‘Ding’. It is a nudge to one of our strongest instincts and motivations – to succeed in a task that should be eminently achievable but is often frustratingly not. Add the public setting (no one likes to look bad in public and the ‘herding’ influence of others on our behaviour is more powerful than we may accept!), the fun atmosphere created as we try (and try) and the satisfactory feedback/reciprocation provided by the simple “ding” of a bell in the bucket and you have the ingredients for the perfect nudge.

I watched today as one lady asked “What happens if I hit the bell?”.  Having been told – “nothing, it makes a “ding””, she spent 3 minutes throwing coin after coin at the bell in the bucket to no avail; I threw a sum total of £1 in coins trying to hit said bell, as did my lowly paid companions.  Even more interesting was watching how a group of 6 people, who had almost walked past the sandbank, turned on hearing a faint “ding” (followed by great cheering from the friends of the aforementioned lady who, £5 down I reckon, had eventually hit the “jackpot”). Said party then each proceeded to throw coins at the yellow bucket with barely a glancing appreciation of the sand sculptures and so on until we decided to leave.

I bet if you asked 50% of those people 5 minutes after they’d left the scene what the two sand sculptures were that day, they wouldn’t even be able to tell you*. It was one of the most simple and stunningly effective applications of behavioural nudging that you’ll see in a social context in London today. For any male readers – it’s bit like those little flies on the back of certain “progressive” urinals (a subliminal target for you to aim at to reduce the amount of “splash-back”)…simple, yet deadly effective.

All those industries I listed, but most importantly, political policy, are (it would seem and we should hope) learning much from moving behavioural psychology and economics to the heart of what they do in both Policy formulation and execution. In an era when we have scarcer resources with which to encourage, facilitate and deliver some Big Society shaped national scale behaviour change then every arsenal in our weaponry much be drawn down.

There is of course more, much much more, to facilitating large scale human change than dropping a few bells in the bottom of a bucket (another blog on that subject is due) but it does demonstrate that for all our self congratulatory sophistication, we are simple animals in so many ways, driven by a few fundamental primitive instincts. The challenge is to harness that simplicity and those instincts to assist society in making smarter decisions about our health, wealth and happiness. In all those industries a fundamental question we must ask in shaping products, offerings or policies is this: which of our basic human instincts/longings/aspirations does this play to and therefore how best shall it be framed to lead “customers” to the most “appropriate” response.

There is a fascinating debate to be had about whether subliminal nudging is enough (or even immoral) or whether “customers” need to be granted a more active understanding of and participation in how certain choices impact both ourselves and others if behaviour change is to be sustained (and moral) but that’s for another day. For now, I’m off to sort out my bell and yellow bucket. You can find me outside the Ritzy in Brixton between 10am – 4pm; making daisy chains for tips….

*A rather fetching lady’s face and a starfish like creature were the order of the day….once you saw past those yellow buckets.

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The Big Lunch 2010 and the importance of “social capital”

The Big Lunch 2010 - Sudbourne Road“I do not refer to real estate, or to personal property or to cold cash, but rather to that in life which tends to make these tangible substances count for most in the daily lives of people, namely, goodwill, fellowship, mutual sympathy and social intercourse among a group of individuals and families who make up a social unit… If he may come into contact with his neighbor, and they with other neighbors, there will be an accumulation of social capital, which may immediately satisfy his social needs and which may bear a social potentiality sufficient to the substantial improvement of living conditions in the whole community. The community as a whole will benefit by the cooperation of all its parts, while the individual will find in his associations the advantages of the help, the sympathy, and the fellowship of his neighbors” (Hanifan, L. J. 1916)

Last Sunday, 18th July, the residents of Sudbourne Road, Brixton, gathered to celebrate “The Big Lunch 2010”. Under appropriately blue skies our sleepy, if perfectly formed, slice of south London was transformed for an afternoon into a theatre of food, music, dancing, playing, face painting, badge making, ice cream slurping and neighbourly celebration.

Pre-dating the now ubiquitous “Big Society”, TBL is – like all good ideas – a very simple one. By encouraging neighbours and communities to come together and socialise within the simple construct of a street party, they believe we can:

  • Build and improve community spirit and engagement
  • Make the third of us who live alone feel happier, closer and… friendlier
  • Conquer our natural shyness, to open our curtains, doors and minds and look out for one another
  • Share stories, skills and tools, so we all end up richer in every sense
  • Discover common ground across age, class, faith, race and the garden fence.
  • And you know what. It might just work.

    I’ve lived on this street for over two years.  It’s a beautiful place. Yet we only knew the wonderful couple who rent the flat below us and our neighbours to the right. And really, that was it before last Sunday. And it’s interesting how that seems entirely acceptable for so long. How you can live in such close proximity to so many people and yet live so very far apart.

    I won’t deny to being a little bit cynical when Lucy Sherwood (our fearless leader for 2010) dropped the first of the leaflets for this year’s event through the door. It’s just easier that way it seems. But I couldn’t help but notice that as the day grew closer the greater my anticipation – and hopes – grew. The evolutionary psychologist in me would have diagnosed this as the natural reaction of any innately social animal, but it was also in part triggered by my long held interest in behavioural psychology – particularly when concerned with collective/group behaviour – both in the workplace and in society at large. In particular, two of my favorite studies on the role and importance of community or social capital, kept playing out in my mind.

    In 1995 Robert Putnam published a groundbreaking study of the growing fragmentation and associated dislocation of community and group life in America. Initially published as an article in the Journal of Democracy ““Bowling Alone: America’s Declining Social Capital”, a book of the same name in 2000 went on to be a bestseller.  According to Putnam, social capital “refers to the collective value of all ‘social networks‘ and the inclinations that arise from these networks to do things for each other”. According to Putnam, social capital is a key component to building and maintaining democracy. Putnam’s studies of modern American life led him to conclude that social capital is declining in the United States. This is seen in lower levels of trust in government and lower levels of civic participation. Putnam also says that television and urban sprawl have had a significant role in making America far less ‘connected’. Putnam believes that social capital can be measured by the amount of trust and “reciprocity” in a community or between individuals.

    Anyone familiar with life in N. Ireland or wider United Kingdom will recognise that the trends described by Puttnam are mirrored here. As The Big Lunch website itself reminds us:

  • Two million more single person households are forecast by 2019.
  • We have more rich, poor and ethnic ghettos than ever before.
  • There has been a 7% annual drop in trust between neighbours from 2003-05.
  • Social trust in the UK halved and now among the lowest in Europe.
  • While there are subtleties to be recognised with regard to some disadvantages and inequalities associated with the creation and distribution of ‘social capital’, in the main commentators agree that it can be an extremely positive force – increasing civic and political participation (“The Big Society“), contributing to our personal and collective mental well-being (The New Economics Foundation) as well as improving our physical health and life expectancy.

    Those of you who have read Malcolm Gladwell‘s excellent Outliers, will be familiar with what has become known as “The Roseto Effect”.  In the mid 1960’s medical researchers – led by Stewart Wolf (a physician) – were drawn to Roseto (a close-knit Italian-American community Pennsylvania) by a fascinating but puzzling statistic: defying medical logic, Rosetans died of heart attacks at a rate only half that of the rest of America. The men of the village smoked and drank wine without moderation. They worked out their days doing hard manual labor in nearby slate quarries. The Mediterranean diet, with its preference for olive oil rather than animal fats, had to be compromised as poor immigrants couldn’t afford to import cooking oil from their homeland and so instead they fried their sausages and browned their meatballs in lard (don’t we all?). Yet, they retained unusually healthy hearts in spite of their unhealthy diet and lifestyle. The question was: How?

    In “The Power of Clan”, a report on studies conducted by Wolf and John Bruhn (a sociologist) over a broad period of time from 1935 to 1984, they found that mutual respect and cooperation contribute to the health and welfare of a community and its inhabitants while a lack of concern for others and self indulgence have the opposite effect.

    Studying the history of Roseto, they found that early immigrants were shunned by the English and Welsh who dominated this corner of eastern Pennsylvania. As a result, the Rosetans turned inward and built their own culture of cooperation and community.

    “People are nourished by other people,” said Wolf, noting that the characteristics of tight-knit community are better predictors of healthy hearts than are low levels of serum cholesterol or tobacco use. He explained that an isolated individual may be overwhelmed by the problems of everyday life. Such a person internalized that feeling as stress which, in turn, can adversely affect everything from blood pressure to kidney function. That, however, is much less likely to be the outcome when a person is surrounded by caring friends, neighbors and relatives. The sense of being supported reduces stress and the disease stress engenders.

    More recently studies in both the USA and here by the BMJ have confirmed the correlation between an active social life/set of social connections and longer life expectancy.

    And though it my not have felt that way as  I hoovered up Sudbourne Road’s finest samosa’s, jerk chicken, potato salad, sausages, ice cream and baked goods; there was an undeniable feeling of hope, optimism and yes, “well being” (personal an collective) as the evening drew to a close.

    New neighbours had been met; interesting conversations held; ideas on matters of interest to the local community – schooling and local planning applications in particular – were exchanged; histories shared; new friendships made. We appear – and it’s a shame on me that this was even remotely a surprise – to live among wonderful people with shared aspirations, hopes and fears for our street, their families and themelves.

    And so in the midst of all the semantic scuffles about The Big Society (or more locally known as Lambeth’s “Co-Operative Council”), what it is and what it might/must become it was a delightful thought that something as simple as a set of street parties, held across the UK, bringing neighbours together one day in July, might just be doing more for all of us than David Cameron’s band of merry social architects as yet.

    “People are nourished by other people”.  That’s the Big Lunch. Literally and metaphorically.

    Long may it run.

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