The UK Government seems to have adopted ‘nudging’ as its strategy for behaviour change. But is it the right way to change behaviour in a pandemic? Is a more authoritarian approach required?


No-one could claim that the way we have been behaving over the last four months has been normal. Hopefully, it won’t be the norm for too much longer and we will re-establish closer relationships with friends and family. Not to mention doing things we enjoy in crowds like watching sport and going to concerts. We have all had to change what we do and the way we do it, either by choice or to comply with the rules. Some of us have been more willing than others and some have refused to change at all.

As individuals, we all behave in ways that are designed to meet the needs of both our selves and our society. Sometimes that requires compromise between what we would like to do and what we are expected to do by others. In the end, our behaviour is our choice. That remains so even when there are rules, we can opt to break them and take the consequences. There are always options available to us and we have to make decisions about which option we will choose. We do that hundreds of times a day. It starts when we wake up and decide when to get out of bed and goes on until we decide to go to sleep. How do we make those decisions?


Since the mid-20th century, many theories have been put forward to explain how we make choices and decisions as individual humans. Although different words and explanations are offered, these theories converge on a common theme. That theme tells of two distinct processes, which I will refer to as ‘choosing’ and ‘deciding’. Other theories are similar but do not agree with a binary model, arguing that reality is more complex and there is a spectrum ranging from pure ‘choosing’ at one end to pure ‘deciding’ at the other. Psychological and biological research confirms that there are indeed two distinct approaches related to two different areas of the brain. The processes and degree of interaction between them is also observable but unclear.

‘Choosing’ is unconscious, automatic, intuitive, implicit, uncontrolled and subjective. ‘Deciding’ is conscious, reflective, explicit, controlled, analytical and objective. Far and away, in our daily lives, humans make many more choices than decisions. Choosing from the options available is efficient, fast and emotional. It is not intended to find the single best option but one that works well enough. Deciding which single option to take because it is the best available is slower, energy consuming and rational. Making the right choice depends on experience and understanding. Making the right decision depends on data, knowledge and analytical skills. We would not survive if we had to make decisions all the time and so we choose.


If we want to change behaviour in society, either from necessity or by consensus, there are two ways. We can either use authority or persuasion. Authority involves directing people to behave in a particular way. It requires sanctions for failing to do so and enforcement to ensure compliance. All humans seek order and certainty in their lives. We are not happy unless we feel safe and secure and know what to expect. We are raised to be obedient and to respect authority. We accept authority when it gives us what we need. As individuals, we also need to be in control of our own destiny, believe that we have the right to be ourselves. Fundamental human rights include freedom of thought, freedom of belief and, within limits, freedom of action. Combining the need for authority and the rights of freedom is a delicate balance, especially in a liberal democracy.

Persuasion depends on influencing individuals to behave in the desired way because they want to do so, because that is the right option for them. If it’s also the right option for society, then it’s a win-win. If people can be persuaded to behave in ways that benefit society, if behaviour is a result of free will, then neither sanctions nor enforcement are required. Change is readily accepted, sustainable and painless. On the face of it, persuasion is the better option by far. It is also the harder option. It requires insight, expertise and lots of patience.


Behaviour is what we do and what we do is a matter of choice or decision. If decision making was the norm, then persuasion would be a matter of giving people information, allowing them to work out what’s right and letting them get on with it. We know that decision making is not the norm and that choosing is. We also know that decision making is difficult for most of us. We are not that good at handling data nor the process of making decisions. That’s why there are so many decision-making tools available and so much advice about how to make good decisions. There are many examples that show just how bad we are at making the right decision, one example is the ‘Monty Hall problem‘.

On the other hand, we are all good at choosing, we do it all the time without seeking more data or thinking about the process. Choosing doesn’t always result in the best outcome, but it’s right often enough to not be a problem. We end up concluding that the best way of changing behaviour is through persuasion by influencing choice and that’s the basis of ‘Nudge’.


To understand how to persuade people to choose the preferred option, we need to understand how we make choices and what influences those choices. We make choices based on three factors, the same three that determine all our behaviours. They are human nature, those traits we all share as a result of evolution; personal preference, based on our own experiences, beliefs and emotions; and social factors, what we believe about others.

Understanding how humans make choices enables us to develop strategies for influencing behaviour. For example, emphasising attributes and outcomes positively; making good choices readily available and easy to obtain; describe the desired behaviour as the norm, one that everyone does and likes; providing positive feedback when the right choice is made; focusing on short term gains, underplaying risk and avoiding losses; giving factual references that correct faulty assumptions; emphasising flexibility and choice; positioning things so that they are accessible; repeating messages again and again; using interventions that promote positive feelings. Most importantly, keeping messages clear, simple and short, focusing on the action, using imagery, and checking the response.

These influencing strategies are known as ‘nudges’. This name results from the bringing together of many and various theories, studies and experiments by Thaler and Sunstein in their book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’. This popularised the concept and brought it into the mainstream. It has been adopted by government in both the US and UK. The UK established a Behavioural Insights Team in 2010, affectionately known as the ‘Nudge unit’. Nudging is not new though, marketers have been using the principles for many years to influence how we spend our money, which is an example of a choice based behaviour.


None of us have experienced anything like Covid-19 in our lifetimes. The last pandemic of similar scale was Spanish Flu from 1918 to 1920 which killed an estimated 17 to 50 million people. We have no knowledge on which to base our behavioural choices. Many people are rightly worried, even frightened by what might happen. In these circumstances, instinctive choices are more likely to be wrong than they normally would be. In a crisis, we look to our leaders to steer us through the storm to safety.

Given that, is ‘nudging’ the appropriate leadership style, or would something more authoritarian work better? If asked to choose which we would prefer, all those factors described above would influence our choice. There is no obvious answer and, without knowing what information we would need and how we would make a rational decision, any answer could be right. It is a delicate balance between a style of leadership suitable for a liberal democracy with a strong freedoms and rights culture and a style that works best in a crisis. So, my answer would be that the best style would be a mix of direction and persuasion and that, I think, is what we have got. For example, ‘stay indoors, save lives, protect the NHS’ is both directive and persuasive without being coercive. Whether the mix is right for you is a matter of personal choice.

To learn more about the influence of the BIT during the Covid-19 pandemic, visit their website