How our brains make decisions - a Q&A on "Nudging"

10 April 2019
Volunteer Stock 8

How do our brains make decisions? 

Renee Jaine, from the behaviour-change consultancy, Ogilvy Change, presented to Volunteering New Zealand and Volunteer Wellington attendees on 7 April on the topic of "Nudging" and how this relates to how our brains make decisions.

In her presentation, Renee showcased examples of nudges that might be of interest to the NGO and volunteering sector – including how to design campaigns, communications and processes in order to motivate people into action. The event was a success, with over 80% of participants indicating that the topic was informative and relevant for their organisation.

After the presentation, a staff member from Volunteering New Zealand (VNZ) sat down with Renee to ask a few questions about nudging, behavioural science, and the non-profit sector. 


VNZ: For those who couldn’t make it to the event – can you briefly explain what a ‘nudge’ is?

Renee: The classic definition comes from the book ‘Nudge’, by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. A nudge is any small change to a person’s decision-making environment, which makes a particular behaviour more likely.

To give a quick example – it’s possible to ‘nudge’ hospital visitors to sanitise their hands, and prevent the spread of infection, just by putting citrus scents in the air. The nudge works because most of us associate lemon scents with cleanliness – so when we get a sensory reminder that ‘this is a clean environment’, we are more likely to clean ourselves up.

VNZ: What’s different about nudging, compared to traditional behaviour change programs?

Renee: Traditional campaigns assume that people are pretty rational. So say you wanted to encourage people to eat more leafy greens. A traditional strategy would be to make sure that people know all the benefits of eating greens – reduced risk of bowel cancer, healthier hair and skin, and so on. There’s an assumption that once you’ve got that information, you’ll make good choices, and eat lots of salad.

But researchers have found that about 95% of our decision making is automatic, instinctive, emotionally driven – and really shaped by the context in which we make decisions. So rather than trying to change my mind, nudges work by tapping into my emotions and by shaping my context. So if I go to the work canteen and the salad bar is front and centre, and the salad bowls are large – that’s a contextual nudge to eat more greens. And if the salads look amazing, or if they smell good – that will tap into my emotions and again, encourage me to eat right.

VNZ: How can non-profits begin to use ‘nudging’ in their day to day?

Renee: There is a bit of a process involved in designing nudges. But you can make a start by asking some key questions.

First off – what is your target behaviour? What do you want people to do, or not do? And who is in your target audience?

Second – where can you reach these people? Is it on your website, in a drop-in office, via social media, via signage in public spaces?

At step 3 we usually bring in insights from the behavioural science literature – to help identify the barriers to the target behaviour, and the drivers that might trigger people into action. But even without that background, it helps to ask – how easy is it for people to do the target behaviour? Would I do it? What would stop me? Or what would encourage me? Then you can begin to design nudges that remove the behavioural barriers, and enhance the drivers.

VNZ: Say I wanted to get volunteers to sign up for an event. What type of nudges would you introduce?   

Renee: For the purposes of illustration – let’s say that you will target people who visit your website.

First off you’d want to remove any ‘search’ barriers – so you’d promote the event on the home page, and have a really obvious ‘sign up now’ button.

Next you’d want to look at the messaging that you use to promote the event, to introduce some key drivers. You could tap into FOMO (fear of missing out) and indicate that there are a limited number of volunteering spots left. You could boost people’s ego and appeal to the emotions, by telling a short story about how their time makes a difference. You could appeal to people’s sense of autonomy, by giving them a choice of 3 different volunteering roles. You could work with the IKEA effect – which is people’s tendency to love what they’ve created – and give volunteers a chance to ‘co-create’ aspects of the event.

Finally, you’d want to make the sign-up process as streamlined and simple as you can – because even little barriers can put people off. So take out any non-mandatory questions. Chunk up the process into steps, and show people a visual goal gradient – so they know they are currently completing step 2 of 4, which motivates them to keep going. I’d also recommend finishing the process on a social note. So could you make it easy for the volunteer to invite 2 friends along?

These tweaks look little, but they can really affect behaviour. It’s why one of our mottos is ‘sweat the small stuff’.   

VNZ: In addition to nudging, I see that one of your research interests is happiness. What are some of the possible connections between volunteering and happiness?

Renee: There’s a lot of research saying that volunteering can give people a sense of purpose, and boost their overall wellbeing. I think that’s an advertising angle that non-profits could emphasise more – do good, feel good.

In terms of a happiness benefit, I’d encourage people to give their time, not just their money. Donations can feel quite transactional, and the money goes into a big pot, so it’s hard to see how you’ve helped. In contrast, volunteering is people-oriented, and research shows that social interaction is a vital ingredient in a happy life. Volunteering is also practical and tangible – which I know I crave, in this era of ‘online everything’.

As a final point, I think there’s huge scope to increase the level of volunteering done by Millenials. I fit into this demographic, and there’s quite a bit of research showing that we are more purpose-driven than money-driven. We want to feel like we are making a difference – but sometimes we forget that you don’t have to get all of these needs met by your 9-to-5. So maybe you don’t have to change careers – you could just add some voluntary work into the mix.

Originally written by Volunteering New Zealand 

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