Our key take-aways from Nudgestock 2018


Nudgestock is the top billing in my annual calendar of behavioural science events and has been for 3 years now. In fact, I’ve already registered for next year’s early bird tickets! A mix of thought provoking talks, real-world case studies and experiences – interspersed with drinks, sweets and mingling with some of the biggest thinkers and practitioners from across the behavioural sciences – it’s something I always look forward to as a shot of inspiration, innovation, ideation and insight.

The two talks that stole the show at this year’s festival belonged to Rory Sutherland (Vice Chairman of Ogilvy Group UK), and leading British economist, John Kay.


1. Rory Sutherland – On Context

Rory never fails to disappoint in his own inimitable style. Captivating, engaging and humorous, Rory makes behavioural science enjoyable and accessible to a wide range of professionals and sectors.

In science, the opposite of a good idea is usually wrong. In real life, the opposite of a good idea may be another good idea. So it’s important to understand that when theory meets application, context is everything. Rory uses jam as an example – in theory, if you give people too much choice, people don’t buy anything because they can’t confidently decide. And in practice this could also be the case, if for example you were in a hurry at a supermarket. But if you’re going out of your way to visit ‘World of Jam’ you would be disappointed if they only had a choice of 3 different jams.

Framing was also explored, and the difference it can make to say “I wonder if you can help me?” rather than “sorry to dump this on you”. People react better when their status is elevated. Try it next time you’re asking a colleague for help with something and see what happens…

Interestingly, he also took on the current obsession with ‘Big Data’, suggesting that many professionals are no longer thinking and questioning the actual benefits of big data, and instead are just following the herd. Because big data helps things look scientific and logical, nobody is asking questions about its downsides.  As big data comes from the past, as opposed to the present, it fails to sufficiently account for context. A huge oversight given that human behaviour and decision-making is so highly context dependant. So next time you hear someone jump on the big data bandwagon and tell you it’s the answer to all your problems, take a moment to pause and recall how a reliance on big data was responsible for the demise of Nokia, and Hilary Clinton’s unsuccessful presidential campaign.

It’s this so-called ‘replication crisis’ – many behavioural insights don’t faithfully replicate in practice – that forms the backbone of Rory’s talk. It’s the fact that the smallest of contextual differences can have such disproportionately big effects on human behaviour that gives the behavioural sciences such power and potential in better understanding and affecting behavioural change.

Watch the talk here.


2. John Kay – On Evolution and Rationality

John Kay, in his talk, reinforced the growing realisation and acceptance that as humans we haven’t evolved to make ‘optimal’, rational decisions (i.e. to access all available information and weigh-up the pros and cons for each decision). We routinely have to make decisions under circumstances with limited information, time, mental energy and attention. And as new research suggests that we each make, on average, around 35,000 decisions per day, it’s not hard to believe that most of these decisions will be based on satisfactory outcomes, rather than optimal ones, through a process of “satisficing” – making decisions that are sufficient enough to allow us to move on to the next thing (and subsequently, get on with our day).

As such, Kay put forward that the traditional model of human behaviour and notion of economic rationality (i.e. costs and benefits) is no longer fit for purpose for effectively understanding and driving human behaviour.

Watch the talk here.


Other highlights of Nudgefest 2018:

  • Michael Pawlyn explored biophilia and biomimicry (the human benefits of contact with nature) in architecture. For example, a camel’s nose can serve as inspiration for the cooling and humidifying of a building.
  • Ruth Morgan claimed that 96% of forensic evidence submitted in court in America is wrong due to misinterpretation, reinforcing Rory Sutherland’s points on context.
  • Nicholas Cristakis focussed on the power of social behaviour, exploring ideas around how the societal benefits of doing a favour makes you more likely to do more favours, and the benefits of artificial unintelligence: how random interruptions can improve the effectiveness of human performance and decision making.
  • Mark Brooks proposed that Tinder owes its popularity to its swiping system, postulating that the swiping mechanism lends itself to the non-consious system 1, while the traditional score/10 works with system 2.
  • Don Marti suggested that adverts that are perceived as untargeted work much better. Overly targeted ads make people feel manipulated, while untargeted adverts give people the impression that they’ve made a more informed intelligent decision themselves.

All talks are available to view here.

Until next year!