|Politics and the Brain: How neuroscience can improve our body politic, 31 July 2009|
- The Hon Lindsay Tanner MP, Finance Minister
- Neil Lawrence, Executive Creative Director, STW
- Annabel Crabb, Sydney Morning Herald
There are many ways to influence behaviour, ranging from a gentle “nudge” through to a “left hook”, observed Annabel Crabb at Per Capita’s Politics and the Brain event in Sydney on 31 July.
The policy equivalents are non-coercive policy tools to promote good choices, in contrast with badly directed mandates which are just too crude to solve some problems.
Governments are starting to realise the former “nudge” approach is more effective and compatible with a free society in the long run.
Per Capita’s event sought to apply knowledge of the brain, the subtleties of human behaviour and political philosophy to one of the most pervasive policy problems of our age: how to ensure that men aim correctly when using public urinals.
The solution? Etch a picture of a blowfly into the urinal, which men can’t help aiming at. It’s a subtle solution to an (admittedly subtle) problem. The innovation was developed in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam, where it has reduced urinal ‘spillage’ by 70%.
Lindsay Tanner introduced us to this enchanting example, along with others – illustrative instances of policymaking informed by an understanding of human behaviour. In another case, investigators examined how people decide to reuse towels in hotel rooms. They found one overriding factor which predicted hotel guests’ behaviour: when guests were told that the person before them had done so. The biggest influence over their behaviour was other people’s behaviour.
These observations are the early beginnings of a new approach to policy, according to Tanner. The approach is focussed on how to design environments and structure choices to promote good outcomes. For Tanner, some of the most innovative applications will come when such policy ideas are applied to relationships-focussed thinking in society. How can social and physical environments strengthen relationships? How can people be guided (and guide each other) towards better lives and behaviour? It’s difficult terrain. But they are questions central to building a better society.
Neil Lawrence, the architect of Labor’s 2007 election advertising campaign, let us in on some of the backstage thinking behind government communication and messaging. Policy detail is important, but the big, simple ways of ‘framing’ messages matter more.
Lawrence related how he and others positioned Rudd against Howard in the 2007 election campaign in a “new versus old” frame. They set the terms of the debate and “Howard walked right into our frame,” he said. Once the theme (and the emotions) of “new leadership” stuck, many people had made their decision.
People make decisions based on hunches, emotions, habits, and short-cuts through webs of possibilities and options. An understanding of how people decide, like any body of knowledge, can be used for good or bad ends. Such knowledge is a tool; we have to keep in mind what really matters. “We talk a lot about public opinion,” Lawrence concluded, “we can’t forget that our aim is to change it.”