Living better

Influencing human behaviours

Government’s interest in the tools which can encourage people to change their habits or behaviours, and ‘nudge’ them into behaving differently, has resulted in the creation of the Behavioural Insights Team in the Cabinet Office. The phrase ‘nudge’ stems from Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, New York, 2008

‘You can tell people that eating doughnuts is bad for their health, or you can make it more difficult to eat doughnuts,’ says Nicholas Stern. ‘The first is information; the second is nudge. You are intervening in favour of the higher against the lower self, or the longer term against the shorter term self.

Many would instinctively think, “Well, that is probably the right thing to do”. But social scientists and philosophers ask, “Is that obvious? Who are you to intervene?” In public policy decisions, you quickly run into these kinds of problems, and it is our duty, from the perspective of the humanities, right through the social sciences, to help in structuring a discussion of responses.’

Hence social scientists investigate the reasons why many people apparently do not think about the perils of sugar and salt in the same way as they think, for example, about nuclear waste or pollution. There is a growing body of important research on mistrust and uncertainty, how people access information, how they calibrate risk, and the abiding force of habit. Philosophy and ethics are central here: to examining, for instance, how we think about time in the present and the future, and the interests of the very young or those yet unborn.

In some ways perhaps the greatest challenge of all is responding to the impact of fossil fuels on our planet. Science tells us what is happening, but we need profound behavioural change to stand a chance of turning the tide and preventing disaster for future generations. As author of the seminal 2006 Stern Review on climate change, Nicholas Stern emphasises that this risk cannot be seen as minor, in terms of likelihood; and that the stakes are potentially immense. At base, this is a crisis about survival.

‘We risk – not just a remote risk, a substantial risk – redefining the relationships between human beings and the planet. We risk hundreds of millions, possibly billions, having to move and, if history tells us anything, that will involve severe and extended conflict. The reasons for that conflict cannot just be switched off; you cannot just make peace with the environment having distorted it in the kinds of ways that are now possible. Delay is dangerous as there is a ratchet effect, as flows of greenhouse gases raise concentrations in the atmosphere and long-lived high carbon capital and infrastructure are “locked-in”.’

The Stern Review has had worldwide influence. It offered an assessment of the costs and risks of inaction relative to the costs and risks of action. It examined the range of options available to governments around the world, stressing the urgent need for a global approach to the issue and arguing that the cost of radical present-day actions to cut emissions is small relative to the economic and human costs climate change could impose.

Countering these risks, says Stern, requires the drawing together of economics, psychology and international relations, as well as the natural sciences that help us understand the perils of climate change. ‘And economic history and industrial revolutions and what people have done to their environments in the past. It is international politics, ethics, game theory, industrial economics – the whole gamut. You have to bring everything to bear on this subject, because it is a subject that is all embracing.’

And he adds: ‘The humanities and social sciences are all about not being able to wave a wand. They are about how you deal with understanding the issues of our time when it’s difficult. It is trying to make the difficult and the complex simple enough in terms of principles and ideas that we can find a way forward.’