Take Advantage Of Psychological “Nudges”

Business meeting

Are psychological techniques manipulative, would you feel uncomfortable if you you were able to take advantage of them?

Some will say yes, and yet the reality of life is they are occurring all around us whether we are aware of them or not, influencing how we think and behave. To illustrate this, let’s take a look at something called Priming. Nobel Prize winner Daniel Kahneman, in his groundbreaking book entitled “Thinking Fast and Slow”, describes the “marvels” of priming: if you have recently read or heard the word EAT or FOOD, you are more likely to complete the word fragment SO_P as SOUP rather than SOAP. The opposite would be the case if you had read or heard the word WASH. EAT primes SOAP and WASH primes SOAP. We do this unconsciously. As a business leader, being aware of these ‘nudges’ (a term coined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein) and being able to put them to use is a frequently under used and very powerful skill. In this blog and several that follow, I provide an overview of some of the common ‘nudges’ and how you can put them to good use.

The next ‘nudge’ I describe is called Decision Framing. Have you ever noticed we tend to react in the moment to what we see rather than think deeply about what we are seeing? In one study, if doctors were told that “ninety of one hundred patients survived” as a result of a certain type of surgery, they were much more likely to recommend surgery than if told that “ten of one hundred died”. Our brains are wired to usually ‘react’ because it uses less energy than thinking deeply about something. When you are sharing important information, think very carefully about what you share first, our instinctive reaction to it will have a big impact on how and how much information we take in following.

A very common ‘nudge’ is the Availability Heuristic. We are prone to exaggerating about things we hear about a lot, for example people believe there are more murders than suicides in the US (the reverse is true).  We think this because murders are usually much more newsworthy and we hear about them a lot. If you are planning to change behavior in your organization, focus on frequent and ongoing communication take advantage of this effect and you will be much more likely to be successful.

The final ‘nudge’ I will share in this blog is called Inertia Bias. This occurs because people tend to follow the default option, for example when installing software, they will most often follow the recommended install option. This tendency is very important to be aware of when you give people a choice; recognize they will subconsciously look for the default option. If generating buy-in and commitment to a decision is important, provide a recommended option when you give people a choice. As a minimum, they will pay more attention to the recommendation. For example, a few years ago I was working with a procurement team developing new global processes. Instead of deploying new required process, we held workshops that allowed employees to bring their own thinking and experience into the process. We provided a few examples of what other regions had successfully implemented and made a recommendation on what we thought was best. Almost universally, the recommended default was accepted without resistance.

Look out for future blogs where I will share additional ‘nudges’.