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If you want to send a message…

The iconic movie produce, Samuel Goldwyn, once expressed his disdain for movies with deeper meaning by saying “If you want to send a message, use Western Union.” The archaic reference to telegrams aside, I have found Australia to be a place that doesn’t shy away from using the power of government to influence individual behavior.

Several years ago, I cam across an interesting book by  called “Nudge” by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that expounds on the the possibility of government (or really any organization) using subtle, non-obvious cues to bring about desirable behavior.  In their book, the describe many examples of how this might work. One of the ones I remember was that studies have shown (I love that phrase – you know something good is coming if you say “studies have shown..”) that simply by moving fresh fruit to the the end of the cafeteria line, and moving the candy bars and snack cakes to a slightly less convenient location, school students make better choices.  in essence, the students responded to the “nudge” of seeing the fruit at the end of the line.  Of course, this affect is well established and is the bread-and-butter of the marketing community. They go on to describe how attempts to make such nudges policy are nearly uniformly met with push-back from anti-big-government forces who claim that the government should not be in the business of dictated behavior, even if it’s a gentle nudge.

Given the negative impact obesity, diabetes and other health problems related to bad diet have on our economy and national debt, I’m not so sure about that claim.

Here in Australia, I’ve seen several instances in which nudges have been employed on many levels. Here are two examples:

Australians have a reputation for enjoying their drink, but imagine our surprise when we got here and found how expensive it is to join them in one of their favorite pastimes. It’s not unusual to pay $10 to $15 (AUD) in a pub for a draft beer (nothing fancy, just a lager or ale) and $25 for a six pack at the local beer/wine/spirits store. (Interesting aside:  you can pick up a six of Sierra Nevada Pale Ale right next to the Heineken in the cooler!)  Wine is also much higher-priced than we anticipated. In fact, we can get some of the same bottles of wine at home (Lindeman’s, Yellow Tail) for less (even accounting for currency rates) than we can here.

The reason for this appears to be the extensive taxation that the Australian government places on alcohol, at least in part to discourage excess consumption.  And at least one academic study concludes that interventions on the part of government to reduce health impacts of drinking (including taxation) are cost effective.  I don’t know if it’s working in general, but I know we’ve been cutting back (a bit).

The second example is one at the university. They’ve set me up in a nice office on the 5th floor with windows that actually open (something I highly recommend, though I know it’s difficult to design an efficient HVAC system under circumstances like open windows). And like nearly every office I’ve been in over the last two decades, it has a trash bin and a recycling container which are periodically emptied by the janitorial staff.

But take a look at the bins:

Trash bins in my Melbourne University office

I put the mouse in the picture just to give it a sense of scale. Both bins are much smaller than their typical American counterpart, but the trash bin is tiny!  A couple take out food containers or a handful of bubble-wrap would completely fill it.   It doesn’t take long to realize that they make it very difficult to throw things in the landfill.  Similarly, our trash bin at our flat is about 15% the volume (note: not 15% smaller, 15% the size!) of the one we left behind in Boise.  It doesn’t take long before you pay much closer attention to how you generate trash if you run out of places to put it.

A little nudge now and then isn’t so bad, is it?


February 17, 2018 at 11:18 pm Leave a comment

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