Why do you end up on the couch with a slice of pizza in your hand when you had planned to work out and have a salad? That’s something every ...

What the Nobel Prize laureate in economics can teach us about marketing

Why do you end up on the couch with a slice of pizza in your hand when you had planned to work out and have a salad? That’s something every marketer ought to know.

New insights into behavioural science are shaking up industry after industry. Among other things, behavioural economics has become a hot topic, not least thanks to Richard Thaler, this year’s recipient of the Nobel Memorial Prize in Economic Sciences.

Richard Thaler is among other things known for writing the book Nudge in 2008 together with Cass Sunstein. In the book, they investigate why people don’t always act in accordance with their long-term goals (as economists have traditionally assumed). In other words, why we are eating pizza on the couch instead of going to the gym.

To cure this behaviour, they suggest nudges, small, gentle hints that make it easier for us to choose what we actually want.

What does nudging mean for communication?

“Behavioural economists believe that people have the best intentions, but the way our brains work sometimes makes it difficult for us to act on that, since we’re wired to go for what is easy and short-term”, says Christina Gravert.

”Nudging is about how choices are presented, what we call choice architecture. By altering what is the default option, people’s choices will change. So it all comes down to communication,” she says.

A number of governments and companies have also shown an interest in nudging. Some of the most famous examples include the behavioural scientific teams that have joined forces with governments in the UK and the US. You may have also heard that Copenhagen managed to reduce littering by putting green footsteps on the ground that led all the way to the waste bins.

Moreover, grocery stores experiment with nudging to get more customers to buy vegetables, and Nordic Choice Hotels managed to lower food waste by reducing the size of the plate.

Facilitate people’s decisions

But there are also critics who warn that nudging can be used for unethical manipulation. Christina Gravert thinks the objections must be taken seriously and that the objective of nudging should be to make it easier for people to choose what they truly want to do.

At the same time, she points out that we constantly find ourselves in situations where we need to define what the default option should be and decide how different alternatives are presented. The more responsible approach is therefore to make these decisions consciously and deliberately.

And that’s why she thinks communicators need to understand more about how the brain works.

5 important insights about the brain

1. It’s a pain to choose. To save energy, our brain has construed a number of shortcuts that allow us to make unconscious decisions. Often, it’s good but sometimes it gets in the way with our long-term interests. Furthermore, studies show that people don’t choose if they are confronted with too many options. It’s often enough to present 3-6 options.

2. Framing is everything. To avoid tough decisions, we often take the default option or what seems to be the most popular choice. Hence, it’s very important to consider how options are presented. During experiments at cafés, we often choose midsize coffee mugs, no matter how many centilitres of coffee it contains.

3. We hate losing something. Communication that builds on people having to abstain from something now to gain something later, rarely succeeds. We care more about the present than the future and we don’t want to lose something that we already have.

4. We want to fit in. Everyone makes an effort to fit in with the group, so social norms are an important tool in communication.

5. Sometimes, things go wrong. It’s important to test your way forward to see what works in real life.

Read more about nudging and behavioural science

Nudging: A very short guide
Nudging health in food pantries
Behavioural economics in practice

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