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For nearly a decade, governments have been using behavioral nudges to solve problems — and the strategy is catching on in health care, firefighting, and policing. But is that thinking too small? Could nudging be used to fight income inequality and achieve world peace?

Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
Published in
8 min readNov 19, 2019

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Photo: Stuart C. Wilson/Getty Images

Almost ten years ago, a quiet revolution began in London, in the very heart of the U.K.’s central government. This revolution promoted something that shouldn’t really need promoting: policy-making based on empirical evidence.

After all, wouldn’t it make sense for governments to design policy based on data-driven solutions rather than on opinion polls or personal whim or (worse yet) the demands of the highest bidder? This was the revolutionary idea behind the establishment in 2010 of the Behavioural Insights Team — or as it’s more commonly called, the Nudge Unit.

Its mission was to translate the best current social-science research into simple and inexpensive policy changes that would help collect taxes more efficiently, get the unemployed back to work faster, and perhaps even increase happiness and well-being. So far, the unit has had plenty of successes (as well as a healthy supply of failures), has been exported to or imitated by many governments around the world, and also inspired a new generation of behavioral practitioners, often in unexpected places.

Since its founding, the Nudge Unit has worked on a variety of societal problems. One particularly successful intervention concerned the notices that the U.K. tax agency sends to people who haven’t yet paid their taxes. The Nudge Unit found that simply informing late payers that everyone else pays their taxes on time was a highly effective nudge.

“Adding that one line — ‘Nine out of 10 people pay their tax on time’ — would that lead to people just paying up without further prompt? With no further action?” asked David Halpern, the chief executive of the Behavioral Insights Team. “And the answer is yes, it did.”

Among some of the Nudge Unit’s failures: various grit-based interventions designed…

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Stephen J. Dubner/ Freakonomics Radio
GEN
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Stephen J. Dubner is co-author of the Freakonomics books and host of Freakonomics Radio.