The internet is alight with blogs and articles about economic nudging, David Cameron’s ‘Nudge Unit’ and yet another economist (Richard Thaler) who’s recruited himself into the White House with promises to improve the effectiveness of government.
For the last few hundred years, a simple assumption has dominated thinking about human nature: when faced with a set of choices, people make the one that’s most likely to serve their personal interests. But behavioural economists say that people often don’t make decisions like this. People often make decisions which are downright irrational, such as taking out subprime mortgages or chain smoking cigarettes faster than Mad Men’s Don Draper (it’s 2012 now, so you don’t have his excuse).
This is interesting from Saffron’s point of view because we’re often tasked with trying to change employees’ behaviour when there may be no direct incentive for them to do so. An employee might wonder why they should bother engaging in cost saving tactics like switching off their computer at the end of the day or boiling one less kettle for tea when it’s not their money that’s being spent in the first place. And the far away reason that they should do so to save the planet and protect future generations doesn’t cut it for everyone. Saffron’s Nick Simons often repeats that you can’t change behaviour unless you can provide people with incentives or disincentives for doing so. But if people aren’t simply driven by their rational self interest, then it could be that we can change behaviour even when we can’t provide a Pavlovian reward or punishment.
And it’s definitely Saffron’s experience that not everyone behaves wholly rationally. One client told us that their employees fail to use their new online expenses system because they didn’t like the change. Clearly some people would rather forgo reimbursement for expenses than have to change the way they do things.
The idea of nudging is based on research that shows that you might be able to persuade people to make different (read, more responsible) decisions by tweaking their environment so that they perceive their options in different ways. For example, studies show that placing fruit at eye level in school canteens can dramatically increase sales. One experiment involved sending vehicle tax avoiders warning letters in plainer English. I haven’t seen the letter but according to The Economist, it went something like this: ‘pay your tax or lose your car.’
But is this easier said than done? Going back to my example about change management: if people don’t want to change, despite incentives, then to what methods should a hard working instructional designer resort?
Saffron recommends three alternatives:
1. A good relationship between the graphic design and instructional design team is a must for any good e-learning course
Next time you see several PowerPoint screens worth of text think about how it might be represented visually. Rather than writing a couple of screens telling users about a new project management process, why not represent it as a process flow or animation?
2. Forget the theory, focus on behaviour
We all know how easy it is to be hoodwinked by subject matter experts into filling a course with heaps of the theory behind competition law or data protection when what a learner needs to know is what they need to do better or differently in their job. Educate your SMEs so that they know that they’ll never change behaviour if you don’t show people what sort of behaviour they’re expected to perform.
3. Less is more
60 minutes of scenario-based questioning probably won’t be as effective as a 10 or 15 minute course, even if it’s less interactive. If you’re only selecting material that’s absolutely relevant to your audience then you shouldn’t really have any more than 30 minutes’ worth of content anyway. If you do, then consider whether the scope of your course is too large.
Whether or not nudging gets people to stop eating fast food or pay their car tax remains to be seen. But I’m still wondering: could we apply the insights of nudging to e-learning? Many companies already automatically assign courses to their employees’ online learning profiles and send out self-generated emails to remind people to take them. But is there any more that e-learning professionals could take from the economic nudgers? It could certainly work out cheaper than promising to give staff Amazon vouchers or a meal out for two in return for completing training courses.