How behavioural nudges can push Britons to do their civic duty
POPSCI: A scientific slant on popular culture
Hull Council has worked with the UK government’s Behavioural Insights Team to keep its electoral register up-to-date, producing a letter that had a visual warning and easy-to-follow steps. We explore the science behind how removing the friction from mundane activities can encourage people to get them done.
The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team sought to increase initial response rates to household enquiry forms by sending out letters in a distinctive brown envelope with a local authority logo and a warning not to ignore. The letter itself outlined a simple three-step procedure to register, with a warning of further correspondence and face-to-face collection of the information if they failed to respond. Because the letters were cheap, Hull managed to save 2.5% on canvassing costs, which represented annual savings of around £5,000 per 100,000 properties in reminder costs. “One of the most consistent behavioural findings is that minor frictions in a process can significantly affect the likelihood that people complete it,” reads a report from the Behavioural Insights Team.
Our behaviour is driven by our current perception of costs and benefits. When making decisions, we combine them into a utility function, the value of which we assess and analyse to guide our choices. Classic economic theory assumes that individuals make decisions guided by a rational assessment of costs and benefits in order to maximise their utility. However, people aren’t always rational, and research found people tend to discount delayed rewards as opposed to more immediate ones or immediate costs, a mechanisms that often drives impulsive behaviour.
Behavioural economics studies show that when there is an action with an immediate short-term cost (such as filling in a form) and a long-term benefit (such as the right to vote in the next election), people tend to procrastinate and often never complete the action — a fact that Beeminder challenges to get people to stick to commitments. Hull Council created a salient message by using an authoritative brown envelope when the majority are white, enabling it to stand out, while the letter’s simple language and option to register online reduced any friction. Because of these nudges, people are less likely to procrastinate, enabling the council to decrease the immediate cost of household registering.