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Nudge Theory and Getting What You Want

Contemporary affairs in the political realm continue to shine an unforgiving light on an age old question – what is the best way to convince other people that your views have merit, or may even be correct?

With the torrid Brexit deadlock showing little sign of being untangled any time soon, we are yet to see much in the way of that old fallback when two strongly-held views collide – compromise. What we have seen is a worrying tendency for opinions to become more deeply entrenched and the language used to express them increasingly vitriolic, no doubt fuelled by the fact that people don’t seem to believe the basic rules of civility apply to discourse on social media.

So as we await the final outcome of this current generation of politicians’ apparent lack of skill and aptitude in the finer points of arbitration and diplomacy – what is the best way to achieve a desired goal when facing hostile and difficult negotiations? Is it a case of shouting the loudest or longest? Setting out to ridicule everything an opponent says in an attempt to undermine the value of their opinions? Or could it even be a case of patiently trusting that calm, reasoned logic will eventually win out?

When you look into the art of negotiation, even this latter approach cannot be relied on. Perhaps this is even the reason why we see so much healthy debate descend into sniping and personal abuse – people put forward what they believe is a perfectly rational argument, and are so taken aback when adversaries don’t agree, their only recourse is to lose their temper and question the other party’s intellectual faculties.

Subconscious influence

Reason alone is not the be all and end all of winning an argument, because the overwhelming majority of discussions and debates do not occur on a purely rational level. When you enter a negotiation, you are not embracing an abstract exercise in formal logic. You are dealing with people who hold opinions and viewpoints, which may be contrary to yours, that are strongly influenced by human emotions. For the most skillful and successful negotiators, it is considering this emotional side that is key.

One powerful example of the importance of people’s hidden, subconscious motivations in influencing decisions and achieving consensus is Nudge Theory. Originating in the field of behavioural science in the 1990s and building on the earlier concept of heuristics, it found its most celebrated formulation in Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s 1998 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Thaler won a Nobel Economics Prize for his contribution.

In its purest form, Nudge Theory can be viewed as the Yin to rational argument’s Yang. Instead of constructing a sophisticated and rationally watertight argument for a particular proposition, you instead focus on the factors that are likely to influence another person’s reception to it. In purely behavioural terms, it is about controlling the factors that influence decision-making – not trying to convince people why they shouldn’t eat junk food, but making fresh fruit and vegetables cheaper and more readily available (and presumably better advertised).

In the field of politics, Nudge Theory has become popular in policy-making, steering authorities away from trying to impose policies on people from the top down, but instead make it easier for people to adopt the desired behaviour. A classic example would be the introduction of recycling bins – no law was passed saying everyone must recycle, but by providing every home with separate bins, it made it easier for everyone to do their bit to cut down on waste going to landfill.

As we have seen only too clearly in the on-going Brexit drama, people don’t like being told a) that they are wrong or b) what they should think or do. Nudge Theory takes a much more subtle approach – it is part dangling the carrot, part letting them believe it was their idea in the first place. As well as trying to shape the factors that influence decision-making to achieve a certain outcome, it can involve things such as setting an example (popular in today’s digital marketing industry with the use of social media ‘influencers’) or even the use of socio-normative language (everyone else is doing is, so why aren’t you?)

Around the negotiating table, a nudge might be viewed as a special approach to seeking compromise. It is not necessarily all about meeting a diametrically opposed party half way. Rather, it might constitute tactically giving up a little ground in certain areas to, for want of a better phrase, massage the other side’s ego – if they feel they are being listened to, they might be willing to concede ground in  areas that are more important to you. It could also involve reframing your arguments in ways which accommodate what the other side wants – or, at its most politik, making adjustments which will allow them to change their mind whilst saving face.

Whatever the details, Nudge Theory reminds us that, all too often, the harder we push a proposition, the more people resist. The true art of negotiation and of influencing other people’s thinking is being able to think around the issue of making your viewpoint attractive to the other side. Understanding and being able to take control of how opinions are formed is one very valuable approach.