Nudge, don’t nag – my “Best of Health” article for March 2022

My inspiration for this month’s article came from a blog by McKinsey, the well-known (and very expensive!) management consulting group. It started by saying “With such a fine line between a nudge and a nag, it’s important to acknowledge and understand the subtle difference between the two”.

Previously, I wrote about some of the principles of human behaviour change that have been developed by the UK’s Behavioural Insights Team. They have also been called the “Nudge Unit” because of the tools and approaches they have developed to help the government to “nudge” people into adopting policies. There have been numerous examples of how this has played out during 2020 and 2021, to persuade citizens to change their behaviour in the face of the Coronavirus situation. Readers may have seen Professor Susan Michie from UCL on the news, discussing the effectiveness (or lack) of the various interventions.

I, and others, have repeatedly described the challenge of improving canine health and welfare as being one of human behaviour change, rather than being a veterinary, genetic or scientific one. There are key groups of people, all of whom need to change their behaviour, if we are to see an improvement in dog health. They include buyers, breeders, owners, judges and exhibitors, to name just 5 groups. 

What is a nudge?

A nudge guides people’s choices without removing options or changing incentives. It’s like leading a horse to water and presenting it with options so that it actively chooses to drink it, rather than eat the grass or lay in the sunshine. The options are still there, but our preferred option is chosen and the horse is happy with its choice!

A nudge is not just a reminder to do something (e.g. “don’t forget to revaccinate your dog”), nor is it a call to action (e.g. “adopt, don’t shop”). If you’re constantly reminding or commanding people to do something, it’s not a nudge. Similarly, nudges aren’t mandatory and they don’t have consequences. Rules and regulations aren’t nudges (e.g. mandatory completion of Breed Watch health reporting forms by judges), nor are consequences such as awards being withheld for failing a dog show vet check.

I have to make it clear that, although the examples above aren’t nudges, that doesn’t mean they may not be legitimate interventions designed to change people’s behaviour. In my presentation at the 4th International Dog Health Workshop, I showed Susan Michie’s “Behavioural Change Wheel” which describes a range of interventions that include communication, policies, regulation, incentives, education and coercion. They all have their place (potentially) and Michie even provides a toolkit of over 80 specific behavioural interventions that could be used, in the right circumstances.

What makes a good nudge?

A good nudge is all about choice and it is powerful because it still gives people control over their own destiny. They can choose whether or not they adopt the “desirable” option. However, a good nudge goes further than giving people a choice; that choice is easy to make and there is no disincentive for not making it. For example, automatically offering new puppy owners 5 weeks’ free insurance when a breeder registers their puppies, is a nudge. A similar example would be to enrol new puppy owners onto relevant KC Academy courses at the point where they transfer their puppy into their ownership.

Good nudges are easy for people to follow and enable them to be well-informed. In the above examples, it would be important to make it clear how people could opt out if they wished to.

The HMRC is an often-cited example of using nudges to increase compliance with paying taxes. They send out letters with phrases like “9 out of 10 business owners like you have already submitted their tax payment”. In one case, this approach induced nearly £5M of overdue taxes to be paid. Maybe this could have some relevance to encourage uptake of health screening: “9 out of 10 breeders have screened their dog for XYZ; you are in a small minority who has not”. As an aside, it might also work for late submission of judges’ critiques!

Good nudges are personal

Nudges should take account of individuals’ mindsets, preferences and behaviours to ensure that the most desirable option is also most desirable to them, personally. So nudges for long-standing and experienced breeders should be different to those for novice breeders. Nudges for judges of Breed Watch Category 3 breeds would need to be different from those for Categories 1 and 2. Nudges for breeders and buyers of brachycephalics would need to be different from those for other breeds. Nudges really are the antidote to the “one size fits all” mentality that has so often pervaded attempts to improve dog health.

Technology can obviously make nudging easier. We are all familiar with opt-in and opt-out choices when we sign-up to a new website or service. Subscription services usually highlight a “most popular” option to encourage you to select that one. Increasingly, we have data available from website analytics that we can use to tailor our messages, for example by understanding where our health website visitors come from and which pages they spend most time on.

Resources such as the KC Academy have a wealth of courses to help breeders, owners and judges learn about canine health and welfare. A nudge example might be to enrol all new judges into an optional learning module on canine health, in the KC Academy. It leaves them the option not to take the course, but they are more likely to take it than to opt out.

There is clearly a fine line between a nudge and a nag, so it is important to understand the subtle differences between them, before thinking about using a nudge in practice. Nudges can create or change habits by going with the grain of behaviour: harnessing automatic effects. They can move people onto a different, self-sustaining, track, without always explicitly stating the need to pursue a particular goal. 

Do we have a common cause and vision?

Habits, of course, don’t exist at the individual level only. When replicated across a community or society we call it “culture‟. I’ve used Peter Drucker’s quotation before: “Culture eats Strategy for breakfast”. It is incredibly challenging to get large groups of people to change their habits and to achieve a culture change. One study suggested that 25% of any group needed to change before a tipping point was reached. The world (and dog health) changes when networks of relationships form among people who share a common cause and vision of what’s possible. It would be unrealistic to think that nudges alone will be sufficient to accelerate progress with dog health but I suspect it’s an approach that hasn’t, so far, been given enough thought. 

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