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Need a little nudge?

Need a little nudge?

The New York Times yesterday published a story on how nudging is saving the United Kingdom.

Okay, a bit of an overstatement. The story is actually about a group of British officials who fan out across the country

“to job centers, schools and local government offices and tweaks bureaucratic processes to better suit human nature. The goal is to see if small interventions that don’t cost much can change behavior in large ways that serve both individuals and society. …

The unit has been nudging people to pay taxes on time, insulate their attics, sign up for organ donation, stop smoking during pregnancy and give to charity — and has saved taxpayers tens of millions of pounds in the process, said David Halpern, its director. Every civil servant in Britain is now being trained in behavioral science. The nudge unit has a waiting list of government departments eager to work with it, and other countries, from Denmark to Australia, have expressed interest.

“At the core of nudging,” writes Katrin Bennhold, “is the belief that people do not always act in their own self-interest. We can be undone by anxiety and swayed by our desire to fit in. We have biases and habits, and we can be lazy: Faced with a choice, we are more likely than not to go with a default option, be that a mobile ringtone or a pension plan.

The results of the nudging campaign, while modest, seem promising.

The story got me wondering if it would be possible to nudge people in the church toward behaviors that might help re-energize our congregations. Got any ideas for a little gentle ecclesiological engineering?


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Wayne Sherrer

The mention of nudging relates to the findings of a recently published book entitled Scarcity: Why Having Too Little Means So Much. It explains that a frequent reason why people do not act in their own self-interest or according to their intentional choices is the mindset created by scarcity. Scarcity of money, time or other resources leads a person (or institution) to focus on resolving the immediate, presenting issue. Unfortunately, that scarcity-induced focus comes at the cost of tunnel vision which disregards everything else as a distraction. Anxiety over the scarce resource can cause a pre-occupation with the scarce commodity and interfere with attempts to direct one’s attention elsewhere. The book advocated reminders (i.e. nudges) by others as an effective means of alerting people to events or opportunities which lie outside their tunneled vision. But nudges alone can only do so much. Other counterweights to the scarcity mindset include putting some actions on auto-pilot, linking decisions to actions and creating slack to allow for unpredictable occurrences. Consistent scheduling of worship and meetings allows attendance to become a habit. An example of linking in the church might be the provision of automatic debit forms (and the assistance to fill them out, if needed) to people when pledges are requested. Once the prayerful decision to pledge is made and the execution of that decision is automated, nudges to fulfill the pledge are unnecessary. Spreading out responsibilities to a wider group or reducing the number or cost of activities can create slack in our personal and institutional budgets of time and money and provide space for the Spirit to do a new and unexpected thing.

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