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Nudge: How behavioural psychology is being increasingly used in PR

One of the main reasons why I like PR is because I love psychology. PR is very much about knowing how people think and feel and anticipating how they will react to different things. Arguably, PR is pure psychology with a scent of creativity.


So much so that, I was surprised to learn that the UK Cabinet launched a separate government unit in 2010, dedicated to “find innovative ways of changing public behaviour” using insights from behavioural psychology. The Behavioural Insights Team or ‘Nudge Unit’ took its nickname from a 2008 book Nudge by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. Using ‘Nudge’, £300m could be saved from the taxpayer money thanks to the positive influence to areas like public health, the government claims.

There are two types of behaviour change. One is cognitive when the choices are rationally considered – this is how public policy has traditionally approached people. The other one is based on the context model where context and environment have a significant effect on choice outcomes and therefore it is less rational and more instinctive, automatic. The nudge method utilises the latter model.

According to a discussion document released by the Nudge unit the most robust effects that impact behaviour is covered by the acronym MINDSPACE.

mindspace acronym

So for example changing the way choices are presented can significantly change the outcome. According to the ‘Default’ effect, people tend to choose the option that is set by default. For example, concerning the low take-up of employer-based pension schemes the Commission pointed out that providing information and generic advice about the options did not really have an impact. They said in 2003 an estimated 4.6 million employees had not joined employer based pension schemes even if they had had access to it – because opting-in was not the default option. Making opting into the pension schemes the default option significantly raised take-up.


Another notable example for that emotional nudges are more efficient than rational ones is OgilvyOne’s Crimestopper campaign. It is based on Loewenstein’s theory that people can be either in ‘hot state’ where they are affected by their emotions or in ‘cold state’ where they are thinking rationally. The theory goes that when we are in any of these states we fail to predict how we would behave in the opposite. So when it comes to pickpocketing, we would be in an emotional state if our smartphone was stolen from our bag. However, most of the campaigns or signs raising awareness of pickpocketers have tried to convince us rationally to take care of our belongings. OgilvyOne put people in an emotional state to be more receptive to their anti-pickpocketing messages. In the frame of the #putpocket campaign, they employed ex-pickpocketers to put wallet or smartphone-shaped cardboards into people’s bags. So when a person realised that something had been put in their pocket, they felt how vulnerable they were to pickpocketers and how easy it is to interfere with their belongings. Watch the fun and thought-provoking video about the campaign!

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