'Nudge' by Thaler and Sunstein is the book that in every policy maker’s, combination-lock briefcase this summer. It’s another ‘concept’ book, which is basically an innocuous word masquerading as a serious idea.
But there are several problems with the book:
1. The basic concept is too vague and covers too many cases to be taken entirely seriously. TV ads, slogans, pictures, policy tweaks – you name it, it can be called a nudge. It’s a jack of all trades term.
2. It is hopelessly US-centric. They literally talk about the American Dream (which has just turned into a nightmare) as if it were the premise behind all human behavior. They really do distrust government and have unbridled trust in business (hope they’re watching TV this week). Their whole treatise is framed in a Democrats v Republican frame (say no more). It’s libertarian capitalism at its worst.
3. They are really lawyers masquerading as psychologists. They drag out a couple of old Asch studies but largely ignore the bulk of 20th century social psychology, depending on anecdote and examples.
4. By recommending ‘nudges’ as a panacea, they simply put policy making into the marketing sphere. The bad news is that the private sector will market you out of existence. Take smoking. The only way to stop those crooks from killing our children is to make the laws tougher.
Nudges are actually interesting
To be fair, nudges is a nice little word, and some of their examples are quite catching.
Example 1: place the image of a fly in airport urinals to reduce spillage (I can confirm that this works as the cleanest urinals in Brighton are in Zilli’s restaurant)
Example 2: cash feedback loops on utility and petrol consumption
Where the book scores is in giving a complex set of techniques a simple name. It forces you into thinking about how to change behaviour without automatically defaulting into compulsion.
Nudges and learning
What are useful are the lessons to be learnt about the marketing of learning and e-learning to learners. The book does have some useful ideas that could be taken across into the learning world. Here’s my top ten starter list:
1. Language nudges
Learning professionals should use appropriate language and scrap training, learning styles, competences, objectives, homework and so on.
2. Feedback nudges
Focus on regular formative and not end-point feedback. Learning is about correcting errors, see Beyond the Black Box.
3. Email nudges
Email nudges like no other form of communication, yet little actual learning is delivered or prompted by this means.
4. YouTube nudges
Use YouTube nudges to virally spread learning. For example, this brilliant PowerPoint tutorial – hilarious and succinct.
5. Book nudges
Encourage the purchase of books, give everyone an Amazon account and budget, and get one into your bag for the train or plane.
6. Note nudges
Branson has a notebook on him at all times. Memory is fallible and note taking dramatically increases learning. Take notes every day.
7. Audio nudges
Podcasts, audio books, recording lectures. A still, vastly underused form of nudge learning.
8. Doing nudges
Buy Getting Things Done by Allen. It’s full of nudges around getting things done, on the premise that you leave nothing hanging in the air. Brilliant book.
9. Feed nudges
Get a personalized home page with feeds from your favourite learning sources and start using RSS.
10. Blog nudges
Get blogging. You’ll learn loads by habitually writing things down.