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In the News

Nudge Theory - how to stop people dropping litter?

I have been watching this short video today on litter left behind by skiers at a Swiss resort. It has coincided with a day when I have been curating a couple of resources on 'Nudge Theory' for our upcoming Behavioural Economics CPD event running to coincide with specification changes for A level Economics. I've longed used litter as an example of a demerit good or economic bad (for some reasons students seem to love anything called 'bad') but now I can use it as a way of teaching some 'nudge theory'.

Behavioural Economics and nudge theory is relevant to all of the major awarding bodies but specifically for the AQA Economics board where it gets a special mention in the new specification.

If you are not aware, nudge theory is a growing set of ideas developed by Behavioural Economists to help map decisions that people might make by offering ‘positive’ messages to encourage an outcome. In effect, it is an act that ‘nudges’ people into making positive actions.

This was originally defined by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein as:

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

So, fining people who litter in the Swiss Alps is not a 'nudge' even if it is a policy that clearly intends to motivate people to dispose of litter sensibly. So what 'nudge' methods could we use to discourage littering?

The positioning of rubbish bins is a common method - place bins near places where people are most likely to drop litter (e.g. outside a fast food restaurant, mentioning no names). I'm not sure that this is wholly effective in a ski resort - you might have to have a lot of bins located around a slope and who's going to empty the bins?

The good news for us here in the UK is that there is already a group of people, including leading behavioural experts from the Warwick Business School looking into techniques to persuade people to drop less litter. You can see an article on the initiative here.

The organisation looking into this is called Clean Up Britain (CLUB) and are headed by former Newsnight presenter Jeremy Paxman. Now, there's a nudge method worth thinking about - the fear of Jeremy Paxman's withering look over my shoulder as he catches me littering!

The image below gives you an excerpt of a resource we will be using in our CPD event called, imaginatively, 'Nudge Theory':


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