Beyond Nudge (Interview Prefacing my Upcoming talk at the AMSRS Conference)

Kerry Sunderland: Nick Naumof is a thought leader in applied behavioural science and author of It Makes (No) Sense – In Between the Joy of Gaining and the Fear of Losing. He describes himself as a behavioural scientist rather than a behavioural economist – while acknowledging the borders between disciplines are very permeable – because his focus is much broader than just decisions in the realm of economics.

This interview was originally published on

Kerry Sunderland: What can AMSRS conference delegates expect from your keynote?

Nick Naumof: My presentation is titled ‘Beyond nudge: behavioural design and big context’. It’s been more than seven years since the publication of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book Nudge and since then there have been some great developments in the field of applied behavioural science. Yet, I feel that what has been done up to now is ‘scratching the surface’ and there are huge opportunities for integrating behavioural science deeper into our activities.

If you look at most of the applications, they’re augmenting existing services but not changing the services. For example, you can use behavioural science to work out how to improve school attendance without changing the education system itself, when insights from behaviour science can be used to actually make the education service better. In other words, up until now, a lot of applied behavioural science work involves putting a cherry on top of the cake. I want cherry cake.

The second part of my presentation opens up the discussion about the scale of using behavioural science insights. Up until now the focus has been and often still is on small-scale applications such as plate size, preselected defaults and so on. I believe we can use this knowledge for higher scale design, such as looking at how the design of suburban developments can influence the residents’ health.​

Kerry Sunderland: You say “Real people, sometimes, make decisions and behave in ways that apparently make no sense.” I am interested in the use of the word “sometimes”. How much of our behaviour can be predicted and how much does this predictability vary from one personality type to another?

Nick Naumof: We humans are capable of doing both things that are perfectly reasoned (e.g. design and build airplanes that fly from the US to Australia) and things that are completely at odds with reason (e.g. visit Washington DC for a week and spend half the time in the hotel room).

Behavioural science, unfortunately and wrongly, is seen by novices as a collection of irrational things people do. Sometimes people violate the rules of economic rationality, but in the huge majority of situations we behave in evolutionary rational ways.

The predictability of human behaviour is a delicate issue. In order to predict what people will do we need to know the context in which the behaviour will occur and what the unconscious and conscious goals a person has on the moment. Personality is a weak predictor of human behaviour, compared to others. It has (almost) zero value when looking at choices made in a restaurant, but when you look at long term patterns like couple relationship, personality traits gain a lot more weight. I see human behaviour as a mix between context and personality.

Kerry Sunderland: How much influence does context have on human behaviour?

Nick Naumof: Behavioural science (both academic and applied branches) has taught us several lessons that are difficult to challenge. One of these lessons is that human behaviour is strongly influenced by the context in which it occurs. There are two important points in this phrase. First, human behaviour is strongly influenced and not influenced entirely by the context. There are some ‘hard liners’ who say that personality (individual traits) don’t matter and I strongly disagree. There are situations in which personality is less relevant, even completely irrelevant such as designing a public transport service. The public is so large and diverse, that one’s IQ, agreeableness, openness to experience or socio-sexual orientation are completely irrelevant for the purpose of the work. However, to say that overall personality traits do not influence what people do is, at best, naïve. It denies the obvious reality. Second, human behaviour is influenced by the context and part of the context is related to the individual. I call this personal context ‘transient internal states’ and it covers a quite broad spectrum from the salient identity when performing the behaviour to visceral influences.

To make a clear distinction between personality and transient internal states we need to focus on stability. Personality traits are (mostly) stable throughout life. One’s IQ at the age of five is very close to the IQ the person will have at age 60. Transient internal states, as their name says, are temporary. When we are hungry, we are so for a relatively short time (a few hours at most). When we visit a foreign country we have the transient identity of tourists for a few days. The social and physical influences are entirely contextual, though, in some cases, they interact with the transient internal states and even with personality. The physical space can influence transient internal states: for example the scent of freshly cooked food will make one hungry or hungrier. The transient internal state of being scared (experiencing fear) will increase social cohesion and subsequently lead to higher conformity. The personality trait need for uniqueness will influence how social interactions go and to what extent one is conforming to group norms. It’s not exactly simple.

Kerry Sunderland: You have said that ‘even small, supposedly irrelevant features can have a large impact on what people do.’ What are some examples of this that you have come across in your work?

Nick Naumof: There are lots of surprising examples on how things like preselected defaults and the ordering of food on a table influence human behaviour and most of them are well known.

What I believe is important here is not the surprise element, rather the flawed assumption that small design features are not supposed to influence what people do. You see, there is this belief that people clearly know what they want, how much of it and that they will expend any amount of effort on getting it. Sometimes it is true, for example when we have a very clear pre-existing preference for a particular candidate in an election with two contestants. Other times we face various levels of ambiguity and we don’t know exactly what we want and this is when design features start influencing what we do.

For example, after a large dinner if the host asks if you (the guests) want some strawberries, the answer will be (most likely) ‘no, thank you; I’m full.’ If the same host, after the same large dinner with the same guests puts some strawberries on the table without asking if you want them, there is a good chance that the guests will eat some strawberries. This removal of the question and subsequent decision makes a huge difference in strawberry eating behaviour simply because we don’t always possess the pre-existing preference we are assumed to have.

Kerry Sunderland: How often does service/product design push against human nature?

Nick Naumof: It has in the past and in some areas still does push against human nature. For a long time people were expected to adapt to the product/service and not the other way around. Not so long ago we had to read instructions manuals to use most electronic devices (e.g. mobile phones). Also, institutions and organisations provided services focusing on themselves and required beneficiaries to adjust. Any service that requires self-control and or mindfulness goes against human nature. There are doors that need pushing and have handles that invite pulling. There are long, unfriendly forms that require redundant information. Anything that induces unnecessary uncertainty goes against human nature. There is a subway (metro) system in which the passengers are informed how much time passed since the last train left the station and there is no information on when the next one will arrive. The list is very long.

Kerry Sunderland: Given that the theme of this year’s AMSRS conference is Fusion, how does your work straddle the academic and commercial worlds?

Nick Naumof: Non-academic organisations have a lot to gain from social science. Some of these organisations are comfortable working with people with a more academic profile, while others are simply not ready yet. From my limited personal experience, I can say that the most important thing to do is to show that insights from behavioural science have practical value. People who buy my services just want to know if the service design works or not; they’re not necessarily interested in the academic theory behind the work.

Kerry Sunderland: What are some of the challenges inherent in applying the scientific principle (experimentation) to this work?

Nick Naumof: Experimentation is perceived by some organisations as scary and by others as a normality. I’ve often come across people who are interested in only doing confirmatory research. But I believe that if you are a rigorous researcher, you do research to test the hypothesis rather than confirm it. You can bend the data to confirm your hypothesis but it doesn’t make it true. What I find most intriguing is that loss aversion and the wish to not lose-face (status) prevent many organisations and managers from innovating. Some see experimentation as a threat to their own reputation or status because resorting to experiments implies that one doesn’t know beforehand what the best course of action is. Embracing experimentation implies admitting that you are wrong and having the curiosity of finding out why you are wrong. Many people who use behavioural science are aware of its power and have restraints regarding morality. I’m scrupulous with what my work is used for and reject projects that are at odds with my beliefs.

Kerry Sunderland: Where do you see yourself among luminaries such as Richard Thaler, Daniel Kahneman, Dan Ariely and Malcolm Gladwell?

Nick Naumof: Daniel Kahneman and the late Amos Tversky are great scholars whose contribution to understanding human nature is literally invaluable. Richard Thaler’s research was essential for the development of behavioural economics and his contribution, alongside Cass Sunstein’s, in bridging academia with practice (mainly government) made possible the existence of the field of applied behavioural science. Dan Ariely is, perhaps, the one who made the greatest contribution to the popularisation of behavioural science. His remarkable writing and speaking skills alongside his experience and knowledge contributed to the appeal that behavioural science now has. Malcolm Gladwell is a fabulous writer who, indirectly, helped increase the public’s interest in the field. At most, I could see myself as a humble apprentice of such personalities, not among them.

Kerry Sunderland: Tell us about your book, It Makes (No) Sense, and whom it’s for?

Nick Naumof: In the beginning, it wasn’t my intention to write a book, but after about eight to nine months working on text support materials for my training programs, I realised that I had enough to put together a book. It covers a wide spectrum of knowledge from behavioural science and it gives in-depth explanations. I do not recommend it as the best ‘first contact’ one has with behavioural science. It is a very good book for someone who wants to learn behavioural science. I like to see my book as a ‘mini-encyclopedia’ of behavioural science and one goes for such a collection once she has some knowledge about the field.

Kerry Sunderland: Who are some of your favourite authors on this subject that Research News readers might not know?

An exceptionally good book on the topic but one that’s often neglected is Priceless: The Myth of Fair Value (and How to Take Advantage of It) by William Poundstone. When I read it, I expected quite little of it (probably due to the title) and I was astonished by its thoroughness and accuracy. Poundstone is a journalist, not an academic researcher, but he has put together what I believe is the best book in the field.

I also look in related fields and can recommend a book by Geoffrey Miller called Spent or Must Have (depending on where it was published) which gives a wonderful evolutionary psychology perspective on consumer behaviour. I also recommend The Rational Animal by Kenrick and Griskevicius who bring evolutionary psychology and (modern) human behaviour together.

Lastly, I recommend Nasim Taleb’s first book, Fooled by Randomness. The author is very well known for his other books The Black Swan and Antifragile, yet I believe that Fooled by Randomness is the most relevant for human decision-making.

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