Page last updated at 15:39 GMT, Wednesday, 13 January 2010

A nudge towards sobriety and health?

Drunk woman on bench

By Terry Stiastny
Political correspondent, BBC News

If you picked up a bottle of wine and read on the label "The average British drinker drinks one glass of wine a night", would it make you think twice before refilling your glass?

The Conservatives believe it might - and that public information along those lines is one possible way to reduce binge drinking.

The party has been talking to the alcohol industry about using "social norms" to change behaviour.

In practical terms, that might mean a voluntary agreement that bottles of wine or beer would have labelling information telling you about what the average drinker does.

Peer pressure

The idea is that, by telling people what their friends, neighbours or colleagues do, their natural tendency is to want to fit in and do the same.

So, if you claim "most people" do not binge drink, the argument goes that the public will follow that example.

Information is a basis for us to create a positive climate for changing behaviour
Andrew Lansley, shadow health secretary

It only works, of course, if most people's behaviour is something we ought to imitate.

Shadow health secretary Andrew Lansley, launching his Green Paper on public health, said the Conservatives were using academic research in social psychology and behavioural economics to underpin some policy proposals.

The paper cites the example of Northern Illinois University, which wanted to cut binge drinking.

It took out adverts and put up posters saying the average student consumed only four or five drinks at a party.

According to the document, students "went from a situation where they thought binge drinking was the norm, and everyone was doing it, to one where they understood that if they were getting drunk every night, they were completely abnormal and as a result, binge drinking fell significantly".

Waffle?

The Conservatives have been working with one of the authors of the book Nudge, behavioural economist Professor Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago.

In recent leaked e-mails from the party's strategy guru, Steve Hilton, Tories were invited to get in touch with Prof Thaler to discuss their policy ideas.

Prof Thaler's Nudge co-author, Cass Sunstein, has recently been appointed to a job in the Obama administration. The Tories plan to have Prof Thaler work with them if they win the next election.

Although some Tories are reported to have derided the e-mail briefings and ideas as waffle, front-benchers are using the theories to develop policies in a variety of areas, from the environment to taxation.

Nudge's intention is to get individual members of society to behave responsibly, without the state having to take heavy-handed action.

'Open source'

The Conservative public health document also suggests that public health results could, under a Tory government, be put online.

They could be used as an "open source" to encourage new public health ideas, offering prizes for the best suggestion for a campaign.

Some Conservative frontbenchers speak of the "post-bureaucratic age".

They believe that, for consumers, creating the equivalent of price comparison websites for public services could be a profound cultural change.

Labour ministers, too, have been talking about ideas for a "smarter state" which harnesses the contributions of local communities.

It could be argued that these grand theories are academic ways to confront the problem any future government will face: putting policies into practice while money is tight.

But is relying on the herd instinct enough to get people to behave how governments would like them to?



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SEE ALSO
Call to revamp alcohol labelling
13 Jan 10 |  Health
Can politicians shape our behaviour?
15 Sep 09 |  Politics
Nudging the political debate along
28 Jul 08 |  Politics
Nudge theory
17 Aug 08 |  The Westminster Hour

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