Nudging citizens toward doing the right thing



A new law banning motorists from using mobile devices while driving was recently suspended after many among the driving public criticized its confusing provisions.

The Anti-Distracted Driving Act (Republic Act 10913) went through the rigmarole of legislation, was picked apart by citizens on social media, and almost earned its own Senate probe (the hearing was eventually cancelled), all because the government wants anyone who gets behind a wheel to do what he or she should be doing anyway, which is focusing on the drive.

What if government agencies could get citizens to do the right thing without having to legislate rewards or punishments? No doubt, there is a place for the “carrots and sticks” approach: In law enforcement, it makes sense to punish those who commit serious crimes. But for minor offenses or oversights, trying to drive better behavior through punitive actions can be costly and, in the case of RA 10913, highly contentious.

“Nudges” – carefully designed prompts and activities that encourage better outcomes by leveraging how people naturally think and feel – may be a more effective option. In a report aimed at state and local governments, Deloitte looked at the ways nudge thinking can help agencies improve people’s habits across three broad areas:

Following the rules
One of the challenges facing the Bureau of Internal Revenue (BIR) when it comes to properly collecting taxes is the manpower needed to adequately ‘police’ all taxpayers. So in this regard, the government relies heavily on voluntary compliance. Well-designed nudges can strengthen that compliance and influence everyday citizens to follow the rules.

In New Mexico, the Department of Workforce Solutions (DWS), which is in charge of investigating fraud in the claiming of unemployment benefits, used the behavioral concept of priming to nudge claimants towards accurately reporting their weekly earnings. (The more earnings a claimant reports, the smaller the amount he gets as unemployment insurance.)

Priming is exposing a person to stimuli that reminds him of the value of a desired behavior. For DWS, that behavior was honesty.

The agency primed a group of weekly claimants by asking them to certify that they would fill out their weekly earnings accurately and honestly before completing the form. These claimants were also exposed to pop-up messages such as, “9 out of 10 people in the US accurately report earnings each week.” The control group of claimants went through the usual claims process: they attested to their honest behavior after accomplishing the form and received no pop-up messages.

After a few months, the DWS noticed that the primed group reported earnings 25 percent more often than the control group, and New Mexico saw dramatic drops in its overpayment (of unemployment insurance) rates and fraud rates.

Getting on with the program
The Philippines has had a national health program combating tuberculosis since 1978, and yet the country remains one of the world’s largest contributors to the global TB burden.

A full course of treatment for TB takes six months, and during that period, the infected person must diligently take medication everyday. Sadly, many patients fail to complete this long course of therapy, which is one reason why drug-resistant strains of the disease are on the rise.

An experiment involving patients taking the anticoagulant warfarin used the behavioral economics concept of prospect theory to improve medication adherence. Prospect theory suggests that even a small chance of winning a big prize is enough to motivate people to invest in a course of action that may not make the most sense financially.

For the experiment, patients’ pill bottles were connected to a lottery system and were monitored through a sensor that indicated whether they had taken their medication. Every day, the patients had a significant chance of winning $10 or a slim chance of winning $100. But patients who failed to take their medication were automatically disqualified from the following day’s lottery. To up the regret factor, disqualified patients were still notified if they would have won had they taken their medication.

The researchers invested about $3 per day per patient for the lottery and were rewarded with a windfall: Incorrect dosages per day dropped from 22 percent to 3 percent.

Good citizenship
What if instead of the Anti-Distracted Driving Act, the government nudged people towards being conscientious motorists through social proof?

Social proof messages help people benchmark their own behavior against others to make changes for the better. Think of it as an acceptable form of peer pressure.

A group of nonprofits used this approach to curb household water usage in a Costa Rican town. Along with their water bills, some homeowners received peer comparison messages informing them how much water they were consuming compared to their neighbors. Households that posted below average water consumption received a smiley face sticker and a congratulatory note, while those who breached the average received a frowny sticker and a message saying they were using more water than most.

Due to this little nudge, consumption fell between 3.5 percent and 5.6 percent for homeowners who received the comparison messages compared to those who received only the usual water bills.

What if the government could devise a way to inform Filipinos on the road how their driving habits and practices stack up against other motorists? And what if the government could then reward drivers who conscientiously follow traffic rules and are courteous to their fellow road users by recognizing them on a local or even national scale?

I know it’s a stretch, but if government could do this even just for drivers of PUVs, how would it change our attitude and perspective regarding driving? Maybe instead of flooding social media with dashcam videos of dangerous or infuriating drivers, we would be trying to one-up each other on how spotless our driving records are.

That is what nudge thinking appeals to – people’s intrinsic desire to do good. Maybe it’s not too late to tap into that, even if just to make our roads safer for everyone.

The author is managing partner & CEO at Navarro Amper & Co., the local member firm of Deloitte Southeast Asia Ltd. – a member firm of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited – comprising Deloitte practices operating in Brunei, Cambodia, Guam, Indonesia, Lao PDR, Malaysia, Myanmar, Philippines, Singapore, Thailand and Vietnam.


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