Better behaviour online: A little 'nudge' may help

FROM offering a monthly lucky draw to commuters making off-peak trips to sending SMS reminders for overdue tax payments, the Government has successfully used insights into human behaviour to "nudge" people towards certain policy objectives.

But there is room to expand its use, said the head of the civil service, Mr Peter Ong, yesterday at a behavioural economics conference attended by 200 policymakers and academics.

The new frontiers include online discussions, he said, and he called for more research to bring the desired behaviour change in these areas.

Studies show people do not always make the best choices because they prefer the status quo or they lack self-control.

This presents a dilemma for the Government because in forming policies, it has to strike a balance between applying excess penalties and giving too many incentives, he said.

Behavioural insights provide a way out, Mr Ong said. "With small and light touches - or nudges - large behaviour changes can be achieved."

The examples he gave include the Health Promotion Board's Million KG Challenge to help even the weak-willed stay healthy.

In this national weight-loss programme, the goals are "salient and achievable at each stage". At the start, the reward is modest, like supermarket vouchers. Harder tasks are rewarded with more sizeable gifts, such as vouchers for sporting goods.

People benefit from the programme, and unnecessary expenditure on healthcare is reduced, he said.

In another case Mr Ong cited, the nudge saw an improvement in the effectiveness of public service.

The taxman had used SMS to remind people to pay their overdue property taxes before penalties are imposed.

The reminder resulted in a sharp rise in such payments: from 16 per cent to 47 per cent.

However, the scope for behavioural interventions in new areas such as online discussions has yet to take root, said Mr Ong.

Currently, the first few comments on a new article online may disproportionately influence the tone of the subsequent discussion.

"How can the silent majority be nudged to speak up in the online space, so that a better balance of views is captured?" Mr Ong wondered aloud.

But he added that there are limits to the gains from behavioural interventions.

"This is but one tool that policymakers can rely on. It should be a complement to traditional approaches and knowledge, to build on and not replace them," he said.

rachelay@sph.com.sg

A version of this article appeared in the print edition of The Straits Times on June 26, 2015, with the headline 'Better behaviour online: A little 'nudge' may help'. Print Edition | Subscribe