The Art of the Nudge

Nudging is the art of persuasion that is carried out below someone’s awareness. This is mainly used in health and safety areas as we encourage people to look after themselves. The rumble strips as you approach a roundabout get closer and closer together giving you the sensation that your car is speeding up. Your natural reaction is to slow down. No one has told you to slow down or asked you to slow down you have simply been nudged below you awareness into an action that makes you and others safer.

In the game of life we all seek to nudge others into doing what it is that we need them to do. If we are subtle they will not realise that they are being nudged. Many people get outraged at these ideas and ask me where nudging ends and manipulation begins? Perhaps the issue is in the eye of the beholder, as I say we are all doing it anyway. Perhaps manipulation is more negative and nudging more positive.

A while ago when we were looking at persuasion I suggested other words that we might use or think of instead of persuasion such as teaching, training, encouragement, seduction, inducement, punishment, cajolery, extortion, manipulation, coercion, bullying, brainwashing, exhortation, fear… I am sure there are more. Perhaps we then need also to consider the common vehicles that are used for persuasion such as media, news, propaganda, prejudice, gossip, faith, belief and our good friend advertising.

The Negative Bias

Evolutionary psychology explains that as we, indeed all beings on the planet, evolved we learned pretty early on that staying safe was a very good idea. This meant that we learned to pay more attention to the painful scary things than to the pleasurable things. This is known in psychology as the negative bias. We all know people who catastrophise events, make mountains out of mole hills and always seeing the worst possible outcomes, they are simply playing out the evolutionary negative bias to keep them self and those that they care about safe.

It seems strange that the negative message should be more powerful and create more attention than the positive one. Just turn on the news and see this being played out. Simply ask yourself ‘why is news always about bad things happening? Why don’t we pay as much attention to the good news as to the bad?’ The bad news is potentially telling us about things that may threaten us and from an evolutionary point of view this was more important than being happy.

Security and behaviour

Our behaviour is based around our need for security, for our need to feel safe or normal. This makes us vulnerable to be nudged by any message that might make use feel insecure or threatened.

As you will realise my current hobby horse is Brexit. The Brexit movement was all about nudging people with the feeling of fear and threat. When the statement that we would be able to put £350 million back into the NHS it was not talking to our positive self as in ‘oh that is good we will have more money for health’ we heard the message with our negative bias, ‘Those Europeans are stealing our resources’. This plays right back to the evolutionary negative bias, it is as though the tribes in the neighbouring territories are stealing our food and resources. The natural response is to move away from the source of the threat,

Now, if I say ‘if we leave Europe it is the stupidest thing we could ever do. We will all suffer, be worse off and create more instability in the world that leads to wars, death and violence…’ all of which I do believe by the way, what I have done is just attempted to nudge you into voting ‘stay’ in the next referendum by appealing to your negative bias. If I were to appeal to the positive side of your nature and tell what wonderful people the Europeans are and how much we benefit from being involved with them, the message does not have them same impact.

Nudging and persuading is what we are all doing all the time, if not with others then with ourself. How do you nudge yourself to go to the gym when you are feeling like you can’t be bothered?

Mindfulness is the only option that we have to become truly aware of who we are and what we are doing and also to be aware of others and what exactly they are up to. My stuck phrase is ‘what is the sound behind their words? What do they really mean when they said that?’

In mindful awareness we life in a world of choice and if we are Being nudged we might choose to enjoy it and see where it takes us. After all life is about learning?

Take care and be happy (that is a nudge by the way)

Sean x (so is the X that infers that I care without actually saying it)