How psychology can help shape policies (2/3): Influencing behaviour

This is the second post in the series on how psychology can help shape policies. The first post focused on modelling human behaviour.

Another area in which psychology can be applied in policy making is influencing behaviour, which is the subject of persuasion research.

Who people follow

Psychologists specialising in persuasion research have explored, among other things, the impact of the personal characteristics of a message source on the credibility of the communicated message1 WILSON, E., SHERRELL, D. (1993). Source Effects in Communication and Persuasion Research: A Meta-Analysis of Effect Size. – Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science, 21, 101–112. DOI: 10.1007/BF02894421. . Research suggests that people are generally susceptible to persuasion by impartial experts, by people who are similar to themselves, by physically attractive people, and by those in some position of authority.

These well-established insights are still useful today. A troubling issue in Estonia and elsewhere is vaccine hesitancy on the part of parents, which is surprisingly resistant to the best efforts of doctors and other experts2 BREWER, N. T., CHAPMAN, G. B., ROTHMAN, A. J., LEASK, J., KEMPE, A. (2018). Increasing Vaccination: Putting Psychological Science into Action. – Psychological Science in the Public Interest, 18(3), 149–207. DOI: 10.1177/1529100618760521. . Part of this paradox can be explained by realizing that even though people opposed to vaccination find experts competent, they also find them to be partial advocates of conflicting interests. Persuasion research tells us that perceived partiality may undo the impact of perceived expertise. Winning back the trust of hesitant parents must therefore be considered when designing policies that aim to influence vaccination behaviour.

How and when do ad tricks influence people

One of the most prolific contributions of persuasion research is the elaboration likelihood model, which explains why logical arguments have a chance to convince only when the recipients are willing and able to scrutinise these arguments3 PETTY, R., CACIOPPO, J. (1986). The Elaboration Likelihood Model of Persuasion. – Advances in Experimental Social Psychology, 19, 123–205. DOI: 10.1016/S0065-2601(08)60214-2. .

In the absence of motivation or ability, people become open to influence by various tricks and gimmicks of the advertising and sales sphere (for an accessible overview, see Cialdini Influence: Psychology of Persuasion, 1984). Among such tricks, for example, is the projection of a good feeling derived from a funny commercial onto the product shown at the end of the commercial (even if the joke is completely unrelated to the brand).

Another example is the barely perceptible feeling of reciprocity when a salesperson gives someone candy or a pen, rendering the receiver slightly more susceptible to the proposition following the gift-giving, such as subscription to some service. These persuasion techniques are largely unnoticeable and unconscious, and take place on the level of automatic psychological processes.

Receiving a pen from a salesperson may seem trivial. However, you will become slightly more susceptible to his or her sales proposal even without noticing it. Image credit: Inga Külmoja

The topicality of the elaboration likelihood model has certainly grown in the digital era. Digital and social media broadcast an ever-increasing number of attractive messages which may eclipse other, more important ideas in the fight for the public’s attention. Thus, a policy maker who wishes to rely on communication should bear in mind that the ability and internal motivation of the target group to understand the message are vital for ensuring that important messages are heard.

Enhancing the ability to understand often starts with generalisation and visualisation. Motivation can be improved by clearly formulating the reason why a message is important for the target group. To solve either of these challenges, policy makers, again, are welcome to consult behavioural scientists.

The power of positive nudging

In the last decade, the most prominent approach in persuasion research has been what Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein have termed ‘nudging’. The approach proposes that behaviour can be influenced by modifying the situations where people make choices4 THALER, R. H., SUNSTEIN, C. R. (2003). Libertarian Paternalism. – American Economic Review, 93, 175–179. DOI: 10.1257/000282803321947001. . For example, salad counters can be positioned before the main meal and dessert counters to steer diners towards healthier meals, and building playgrounds and walkways near residential areas can increase the residents’ physical activity5 FREELAND, A. L., BANERJEE, S. N., DANNENBERG, A. L., WENDEL, A. M. (2013). Walking Associated with Public Transit: Moving Toward Increased Physical Activity in the United States. – American Journal of Public Health, 103(3), 536–542. DOI: 10.2105/AJPH.2012.300912. . Nudging may also be regarded as an approach that integrates past achievements of persuasion research6 DOLAN, P., HALLSWORTH, M., HALPERN, D., KING, D., METCALFE, R., VLAEV, I. (2012). Influencing behaviour: The Mindspace Way. – Journal of Economic Psychology, 33, 264–277. DOI: 10.1016/j.joep.2011.10.009. .

In Estonia, the effectiveness of nudging was recently demonstrated when the Tax and Customs Board improved labour tax compliance among construction companies by 5–6 per cent with an email written according to the principles of persuasion research7 VAINRE, M., AABEN, L., PAULUS, A., KOPPEL, H., TAMMSAAR, H., TELVE, K., KOPPEL, K., BEILMANN, K., UUSBERG, A. (2019). Effective Nudges for Increasing Employer Tax Compliance: A Fieldwork-Informed Pragmatic Randomised Controlled Trial. DOI: 10.31234/ .

The email from the Estonian Tax and Customs Board to construction companies starts by setting the scene – they are not here to punish, but to ensure fair competition. Image credit: Inga Külmoja

To measure the influence of the email, tax collection from the companies who received the email was compared against that of the control group who had not received the same email. At first glance, the 5–6 per cent increase may seem a small improvement, but considering the monthly cumulative effect and especially the costs of nudging, the increase in tax collection was rather significant.

The Estonian public sector is increasingly adopting nudging in their policy-making toolkits, in large part thanks to Praxis, a think tank, and Kantar Emor, a research company. Compared to other options, nudging represents an attractive middle ground between the potentially ineffectual informing of people and overregulation, which could potentially unleash a boomerang effect.

Nudging also allows for supporting choices that lead to consensual values like health, wealth, and happiness8 THALER, R. H., SUNSTEIN, C. R. (2003). Libertarian Paternalism. – American Economic Review, 93, 175–179. DOI: 10.1257/000282803321947001. , without considerably restricting one’s freedom to choose. Nonetheless, nudging may introduce an ethical risk, because it is generally quite challenging to seek consent from the target group to be influenced.

There are three main methods to manage this risk. Firstly, policy makers can ensure sufficient transparency for the people so that they can be aware of the methods of nudging and ignore them, if they so wish. Secondly, they can make sure that the intended nudging serves the purposes of the target group. The third option is to move towards merging the direction of nudging with the public values and purposes. Policy making, however, entails similar or even more pronounced ethical considerations, and nudging is often chosen as the preferred method to influence people.

Andero Uusberg is a Senior Research Fellow in Affective Psychology at the University of Tartu. Kariina Laas is the Head of the University of Tartu Institute of Psychology.

This entry was posted in Research, Social sciences and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.