15 November, 2021
Nudging consumers towards more sustainable behaviour
Behavioural expert Nurit Nobel speaks to Dominic Marius-Markham following the recent Sustainable Gambling Conference.
Could you give us a brief background of your career? Why did you decide to go into behavioural science, and more specifically, how did you get involved with the gambling sector?
I started my career in marketing, but even before that, I studied psychology and business management and was always interested in this combination between working with people and understanding people — what makes them tick and why they make decisions — but also in the dynamic environment of the business world. That was what my education was in, and I worked for many years in marketing at Procter & Gamble, but from that I left the whole consumer marketing world because I wanted to apply my knowledge in helping people make better decisions in situations where they know what they should be doing, but have trouble doing the right thing.
For example, they know they should quit smoking but don’t want to or can’t manage, they know they should be working out more or saving more for their pension, or taking the bike to work instead of the car. All of these situations where people want to do the right thing but can’t succeed, I wanted to be there to help them make the right decision. This is what I do research on. I’m not specifically involved with the gambling sector, but rather I research human decision making and ways we can nudge people towards better behaviour, and some work has been done on this in the gambling sector, but not by me. So when I talk about it, I’m discussing the work of others.
What is the field of research like when it comes to behavioural science and gambling? Is this an area, in your opinion, that is highly researched or are we in need of much more?
From everything I’ve seen, it seems to be a relatively new frontier for behavioural science. I agree that there is a lot more work that can be done and should be done, but I think there is much in common between consumer behaviour when it comes to gambling and consumer behaviour in other areas. I mentioned this thing with health behaviours, with other financial behaviours, with sustainability — in all of these domains, we see people understand what the right thing to do is, but they don’t necessarily manage.
We have a lot of research on that and how to get people to make better decisions, and this can probably be applied to gambling, but also we need collaboration with gambling companies and research that is specifically about gambling. I do think that this is a frontier that does need to be explored a lot more.
This is a big question, but in the simplest terms possible, what makes people gamble?
There is a lot of research about how people are attracted to things that are uncertain and new and novel. The chance of winning is something we find very appealing, and it connects to the system where we get adrenaline and other hormones, so we really like these things for the same reason that people take other kinds of risks in life.
This is not exactly my area of research, but in relation to what I study, this idea that even when we know something is bad for us in the long term, we are inclined to still do it, is because we have something that’s called the "present bias’. We prioritise the here and now, putting short-term satisfaction over our long-term wellbeing. So to answer your question of what makes people gamble, the same thing that makes them smoke a cigarette or take an extra piece of cake — we prioritise what feels good in the moment.
Could you give us a brief introduction to nudging?
Nudging is basically a tool to change behaviour, and it’s a tool that comes to complement traditional tools for changing behaviour. Behaviour change is not a new thing. Policy makers have tried to change behaviours for decades and even centuries, and we have some traditional tools like laws and regulations, economic incentives and giving people information. If we think about smoking for example, we can have a ban on smoking in public places, that’s one way to shift behaviour. We can have a high tax on cigarettes, that’s another way, and we can give people information that smoking leads to cancer. All of these are ways that change behaviour when it comes to smoking, and all of these have been used fairly successfully.
Nudging is a fourth tool. It’s basically a way to change behaviour that doesn’t involve laws or regulations, economic incentives or information. The way that we change behaviour with nudging is through small adjustments of the environment where the decision takes place in order to nudge people towards better behaviour. If we want kids in schools to eat less sweets and more fruit and vegetables, we might want to change the layout of the cafeteria, so it starts with the fruit and vegetables and the cakes are last — they may even be in containers or behind opaque glass. Changing the default of the printer from one-sided to double-sided would be a way to nudge towards less wasted paper. Why? Because we know people are inclined to go towards the default a choice that someone made for them.
What are some ways gambling companies can use nudging to promote more responsible play? Where are the best opportunities for these nudge-style interventions?
There is some work that has been done in the UK where they tested different kinds of nudges. One of them had to do with lowering friction to use safe gambling tools. Safe gambling tools are basically tools that gambling companies offer their users so they can gamble in a more responsible manner. They can put limits on themselves, they can put cooling periods on themselves, they can put themselves on different kinds of blacklists, so they’re not allowed to gamble.
It’s important to note that these are things the gamblers do themselves. It’s not enforced by anyone else, and what companies have been doing is trying to make these tools more accessible and reduce the friction for using them. So when you go on the page, it’s very clear that they have these tools and how to use them, reducing the threshold that requires people to look around for these things. That’s one way, another way is to use what we call social proof.
How we normally use this is we would tell the customer that everyone else is already doing something. That’s why we have bestseller lists. We know that people are social animals and want to do what other people are doing. That is a type of nudge, to tell people that everyone else already has this thing so why don’t you do the same. But here, in the context of gambling, I’ve seen something that was successfully implemented which was exactly the opposite. Telling people that it’s actually you that’s sticking out, that you are in the top 10% — 5% — of gamblers on our website. Do you think this is normal behaviour that everyone engages in? Actually you’re the one that’s sticking out.
In your SGC lecture, you touched briefly on the dark side of nudging i.e. companies using it simply to drive engagement and make people spend more — could you expand on this a bit?
Nudging really is a tool, just like a knife that can be used to cut vegetables for a salad, but also used to kill people. Nudging, or rather the same psychological mechanisms that are in the backbone of nudging, can be used to drive people towards worse behaviour. We know this because advertisers and marketers have been using the same kind of tricks for years. I talked about changing the default from one-sided printing to double-sided printing, that’s a good nudge, but making it the default to opt people into spam emails which they then can never get free from, that’s something I would call a sludge — when nudging is being used for evil and not for good.
Another way is we know online retailers or third-party booking sites that tell you, 5,000 people have already bought this dress or booked this hotel room. So many people are looking at this now and if you don’t act quickly, you will regret it. It’s okay to use these but often what we see with these dark patterns is they’re actually making stuff up. This is not based on anything, it’s not actually 5,872 who are looking at this hotel room right now, they have a random number generator working in the background of their website. I wouldn’t call this nudging because nudging really has baked-in the concept that we’re nudging for good. That’s why I would make the separation between nudging and sludging.
Is this a problem in the gambling industry (or other industries) from your perspective? Are operators, either intentionally or inadvertently, promoting irresponsible gambling through nudging?
I’m not an expert in the gambling industry but I would assume that, since the people who work in this industry come from other industries, and other industries have been using these tools for decades to market products, I’d guess that operators are also using these tricks to get people to gamble more. Obviously, that’s something people need to reconcile with if you also have the goal to encourage sustainable behaviour and not just maximise profit.
Your consultancy firm, Impactually, obviously works across a broader spectrum of industries than just gambling, so are there any other industries that you think this sector could learn from, especially in regard to behavioural science and creating a more sustainable/ responsible environment for consumers?
Yes, I would say the grocery sector is one of them. Not that I think things are perfect there, but I see more and more interest from that sector to nudge consumers towards healthier choices, and nudge consumers towards more sustainable choices. Again, I’m not saying the situation is perfect. One of the biggest sludges I know of in the grocery sector is by the register, where you have the most impulse buying, where you are bombarded with very unhealthy products like chocolate and candy. Especially if you’re a parent to young children, that’s where you’re going to feel like you need to buy something for them because you’re standing in the queue, and they are shouting. So you end up buying something very unhealthy.
But at least I’m seeing more and more a willingness to learn about this and reflect on choices, but also a willingness to think and consider how can we design our stores in a way that both promotes the profit of the chain and the wellbeing of consumers. I am definitely seeing some progress in that sector, and I would encourage the gambling industry to maybe collaborate or get inspiration from that.