‘Nudging’ someone in the right direction

Dilip Soman, chair in communication strategy and marketing professor at the University of Toronto spoke to a packed room Friday afternoon, making references to popcorn and urinals in an effort to show how small changes in environment and subtle suggestions from others can change how people act.

The event was the annual Bruce Hunsberger memorial lecture put on by Wilfrid Laurier University’s psychology department. Named for the former chair of the psychology department who was at Laurier from 1974-2003, the yearly lecture series has since 2004 drawn researchers to speak on their areas of expertise in psychological matters.

One of the main ideas the lecture covered was helping people who want to make changes. Grace Tallis, a third-year psychology student, highlighted the issue many students run into. “You always say you’ll [change] something yourself but you’re probably not going to do it.”

By explaining several experiments, Soman showed how a person’s environment affects whether they will change something. Rather than just alter how people think about the change, Soman suggested changes in the environment or “nudges” were the best means of bringing about change.

“I think that the idea that attitudes are important, but the choice context is even more important,” he said. “Attitudes don’t always change into behaviour.”

Soman more than once related the concept of nudges to saving money. As long as someone wants to save money, he affirmed that a nudge can get the desired effect. “The nudge always has an effect and that’s what’s nice about it. So you can get it to work for people that strongly believe in saving or people that weakly believe in saving but you can always get an effect,” he said.

Nudges see applications almost daily in student life. Many students are procrastinators, and wish they had a way to overcome it. When it comes down to it, it’s often a third party that is needed. All of the experiments Soman spoke of involved a third party.

Psychology students present at the lecture agreed that changes are easier with the involvement of a third party. Stephen Daniels, another third-year psychology student, said, “I think that a third party definitely helps. Some people can [make changes] themselves but I think for the majority of people a little nudge is always a good thing.”

But what change in the environment can make students do what they know they should? Soman found a possible answer with an experiment he conducted with some of his students. After letting students pick their own deadlines for the projects, he moved on to the second step. “I randomly picked 2 students, I paired them with each other and I said ‘look, you have to monitor each other’,” he said.

“If you find there’s a violation of a deadline all you’re doing is placing a red sticker beside the students name on a bulletin board. It was something as stupid as that, that got students to want to finish on time. Because they knew they would get red stickers and people would know that they had one.” he continued.

Soman summed up the reasons that made this strategy effective. “The social, the peer pressure is a big thing. Making public commitments and putting your stake on them is a big thing,” he said.

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