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Issue 13 • April 2015
O Behave! One Year On 3
How Obama Nudged Us to Vote 4
Bias of the Month 5
Could a Necklace Change Your Behaviour? 6
When One is More Powerful than Many 7
Your Personality: Fixed or Flexible? 8
Nudgestock 3: Richard Thaler 9
Real Life Nudge of the Month 10
Upcoming Events 10
It’s now been one year since we first published O Behave!,
launching with our Kahneman edition. In the last year, we’ve
published twelve issues and had over fifty thousand views –
and Daniel Kahneman has gone from our cover star to judge
of our Nudge Awards!
O BEHAVE! ONE YEAR ON
We hope you’ve enjoyed and will continue to enjoy
our monthly round-up of interesting new research in
behavioural science, and we want to hear from you!
Is there anything we should do more or less of? Are
there any particular topics you’d like us to cover? You
can leave feedback for us anonymously here.
Ciosa and Juliet
HOW OBAMA NUDGED US TO VOTE
With the General Election only around the corner, it made us wonder whether any of the parties had used behavioural
economics to nudge us to vote for them. If they wanted a masterclass in how to do this, all they needed to do was look at
Obama’s 2012 campaign which had behavioural economics at its core. Obama hired some of the worlds leading
behavioural economists such as Richard Thaler, Robert Cialdini and Craig Fox and developed what became known as the
“Consortium of Behavioural Scientists (COBS)”. This team of behavioural scientists offered crucial input into the campaign
and even helped create scripts for Obama’s speeches. Here are a few examples of how they used insights from the
behavioural sciences to not only get Americans to vote, but to get them to vote Democrat.
Make salient one’s self-identity as a voter
We have multiple “selves” and “identities” and each self/identity can be more salient at different times. We also have a
constancy bias, where we want to act consistently with our identity. If we do not, we feel a discomfort known as cognitive
dissonance which occurs when we behave (or don’t behave) in a way that is contrary to our beliefs. It is a state we all try to
avoid. When Obama campaigners knocked on doors, they would open by saying, “Mr Clarke, we know you have voted in
the past.” This reminds them of and reaffirms their identity as a voter, which in turn increases the likelihood they will vote.
Get people to make a commitment to vote
Another strand of our consistency bias is our commitment bias where we want to
act in accordance to commitments we made, especially those made publicly, which
makes us more likely to engage in the behaviour. Obama used this insight and
asked voters to sign an informal commitment card saying they would vote.
Slandering and making up lies about other candidates is commonly found in
political campaigns. After conducting much research the COBS found the best way
to falsify rumours was not to state the misinformation and then follow it up with the
correct information. For example, instead of “Obama is not a Muslim, he is a
Christian”, say “Obama is a Christian”. Due to our repetition bias, the more we hear
something the more we think it is likely to be true. We also don’t remember full
sentences but associations like “Obama-Muslim”, which they were keen to avoid.
Carey, B. (2012). Academic ‘Dream Team’ helped Obama’s effort. The New York Times.
BIAS OF THE MONTH
The Pain of Paying
Throughout our daily lives we need to part with our hard-earned cash regularly. This is a painful task and something
we would all love to avoid, but of course we can’t. It is so painful to us that fMRI studies have shown that the same
areas in our brain that are associated with disgust and physical pain are also active when we spend money.
What is really interesting about this bias is that this “pain of paying” is mediated by how observable or transparent the
payment actually is. The more tangible the act of paying for something is, the less we do it. Cash is the most tangible
form of payment there is as when we hand over the notes and coins, we can see and feel them. On the other hand
contactless payment cards and credit cards are probably the least tangible as it is a piece of plastic and therefore
people consume more when using them. Research has found that the brain areas associated with “the pain of paying”
when people pay with cash are effectively deactivated with one pays with a card. Paying with contactless cards and
credit cards can also be a very quick behaviour and the payment can be over and done with before we know it.
A study in two major apartment complexes in the States found that people
spent less on laundry when their machine accepted coins than they paid with
a pre-paid card. Similarly, in another experiment it was found that when
asked to bid on a pair of tickets to a sports event, those who were told they
would be paying by credit card bid significantly more than those who were
told they would be paying with cash. All these findings provide a solid
explanation of why so many people rack up large amounts of credit card debt:
If I am paying with a piece of plastic, I am not really parting with my tangible
These studies go to show that if you want to start saving and stop using so
much money, take money out of a cash machine every week and don’t let
yourself pay with your cards. On the other hand, if you are a retailer and want
to increase sales, one way to do it would be to ban cash payments.
Soman, D. (2003). The effect of payment transparency on consumption: Quasi-experiments from the field. Marketing Letters, 14(3),173-183.
Guéguen, N., Bougeard-Delfosse, C., & Jacob, C. (2015). The Positive Effect of the Mere Presence of a Religious Symbol on Compliance With an Organ Donation
Request. Social Marketing Quarterly, in press.
As we go through our daily life, our behaviour is constantly being influenced by subconscious cues or “primes” in our
environment. Research into priming has shown every element of our surrounding can influence our behaviour, such as
smells, pictures, colours, words and so on. For example, Litjenquist et al. (2010) found that citrus scents encourage
generous behaviour, Fitzsimons et al. (2008) found that Apple’s logo can make you more creative than IBM’s logo, and
Latu et al. (2013) found that exposing women to pictures of powerful female roles models can make them better public
speakers. All these examples clearly show that primes can influence our behaviour but the research is still developing.
COULD A NECKLACE CHANGE YOUR BEHAVIOUR?
The latest research in priming released this month comes from
Guéguen, Bougeard-Delfosse and Jacob (2015), who found that the
presence of a religious symbol increased people’s willingness to
accept an organ donation card. During a field study in France,
results showed that when a solicitor wearing a Christian cross asked
people to accept an organ donation card, they were significantly
more likely to do so than when the same solicitor was not wearing
the cross. This effect was found for both males and females.
The researchers suggest that the prime of the Christian cross may
have activated concepts associated with religion such as
compassion, support or solidarity. These in turn led the participants
to look upon the request of the solicitor to become an organ donator
with a more ‘Christian’ attitude and accept. So next time you are
trying to influence someone's behaviour, don’t forget to take your
jewellery into consideration.
WHEN ONE IS MORE POWERFUL THAN MANY
The biggest global news story of the last month has been the devastating earthquake in Nepal on the 25th April, claiming
the lives of over 6,000 people and injuring over 11,000 more. This has triggered a swathe of international appeals to
provide relief to the area, and millions of pounds have already been raised, but could we be doing more?
One mental bias that might reduce people’s motivation to donate is psychic numbing,
which occurs when the scale of a problem is so large as to be incomprehensible to
us (Slovic, 2007). When we think of the thousands affected by the earthquake, it is
hard to put that number into perspective, understand what it means and empathise
with all of those victims. The reverse of this is the identifiable victim effect, where
people are able to relate to the story of one individual, and are therefore more likely
to act. Small, Loewenstein and Slovic (2007) compared donations from participants
who were given the story and photograph of Roka, a child at risk of starvation in Mali,
with those who were given the information that food shortages in Mali were affecting
3 million children. The donations generated from Roka’s story were roughly double
that from the statistics, but – worryingly – the donations from participants who had
received both the story and the statistics were also reduced relative to the story only
condition. This might counterintuitively suggest that, instead of reporting on the scale
of the problem, those aiming to maximise donations to a cause should mention only
one person in their appeal. Further research shows that people would rather donate
to one child than eight; and that our ability to empathise can even be reduced when
the number of children goes from one to two.
An example of this effect in action is the public’s response to Stephen Sutton, the teenager whose story of battling cancer
captured the nation, and who has now raised over £4.5million for the Teenage Cancer Trust, with his mother continuing
to fundraise after his death last year. Over 300,000 people in the UK are diagnosed with cancer every year, an
unfathomable number; but Steven’s story was one people could relate to, resulting in donations far surpassing typical
You can donate to the Nepal earthquake appeal here.
Slovic, P. (2007). “If I look at the mass I will never act”: Psychic numbing and genocide. Judgement and Decision Making, 2 (2), 79-95.
YOUR PERSONALITY: FIXED OR FLEXIBLE?
Though our traits may change in certain situations – feeling less confident in new surroundings, for example – for the most
part we think of our personalities as relatively fixed, determined by our genetics and upbringing. There is some evidence to
suggest that, while we are capable of altering these ‘free traits’ of our personalities, doing so for an extended period of time
is stressful and can even lead to burn out and physical health complications.
In some preliminary work, Balsari-Palsule, PhD candidate at Cambridge, has found a correlation between ‘faking’
personalities traits and lower job satisfaction, using a personality test, work life survey and data from HR. This is particularly
strong for extraverts whose job requires them to work in a quiet environment with little interaction; this is also true of
introverts working in loud environments, but less so. There is evidence to support these effects for all of the big five
personality traits – extraversion, openness, conscientiousness, neuroticism and agreeableness.
Hudson, N.W., & Fraley, R.C. (2015). Volitional Personality Trait Chance: Can People Choose to Change Their Personality Traits? Journal of Personality and Social
Psychology, in press.
However, a new study by Hudson and Fraley (2015) suggests that if people want to
change their personalities, they may be able to. Participants were given personality
questionnaires and a survey to find out how, if at all, they would like their personalities
to change. Over the next 16 weeks, participants were tested again weekly, and
participants who had indicated they wanted to change a particular trait were more
likely to show that change. This was not assisted by weekly prompts to think of ways
to make the change – participants who did this were less likely to change, perhaps
due to the vague nature of their methods. In a subsequent experiment, participants
were given more specific instructions to change: both proactive, like phoning a friend
to ask them out to lunch to increase extraversion, and reactive, i.e. “if X happens, I’ll
do Y”. This created statistically significant personality change, as a result of
participants inferring a new self-concept after seeing themselves behave in a different
way. It is unclear whether these results are due to a reporting bias, and how long
these changes could last. This is the first research of its kind into volitional personality
change, and it is not yet clear whether this can be replicated, or whether there are
similar negative effects as found for changing ones traits in the workplace. It may
have opposite effects if people actively dislike a specific personality trait, so changing
it improves self-esteem, instead of changing just to please others.
Nudgestock 3 is creeping up on us with only six weeks to go. For those of
you who still don’t have tickets but would like to come, there a few left that
you can find here. We have a stellar line up for the day, particularly one of our
headliners – a founding father of Nudge, Richard Thaler.
Richard Thaler is Professor of Behavioural Science and Economics at the
University of Chicago Booth School of Business and has an extremely
impressive C.V. to his name. Not only does he have countless publications in
the field of behavioural economics and decision making, but has also advised
Barack Obama during his re-election campaign in 2012, co-authored (with
Cass R. Sunstein) the New York Times best-selling book Nudge, one of the
first books making all the academic knowledge of how people make decisions
accessible to those outside the academic community. His latest book,
Misbehaving – The Making of Behavioral Economics, is released next month
and tipped to be another great success.
Spotted: Healthy shopping trolley in Walmart, Costa Rica
People spend an average of 90 minutes walking while they shop, for the most
part not realising how much exercise they are doing – far exceeding the WHO
guidelines of 20 minutes per day. Walmart introduced the Healthy Shopping
Cart, with a screen showing distance travelled, calories burned and heart rate.
This showed users how easy it is to get more activity into their lives, and how
many calories they could burn doing normal daily activities. Nutritional tips
were also displayed on the screen, helping customers choose healthy items to
suit their lifestyle. A shopping trolley with an iPad on it is also an incentive to
spend longer in the store – therefore spending more money, both a business
and a social win for Walmart. Watch the video here.
REAL LIFE NUDGE OF THE MONTH
Professor Paul Dolan’s Introduction to Behavioural Science
Friday 8th May
Mastering Strategic Decision Making
Monday 11th - Friday 15th May
Behavioural Finance Programme, Cambridge Judge Business School
Tuesday 26th – Wednesday 27th May
BROUGHT TO YOU BY