Health Secretary, Andrew Lansley, and Prime Minister, David Cameron, are spearheading a new campaign to improve the nations health. As the New Year begins, the Government are looking to make the most of the population's resolutions to become healthier, taking advantage of the time of year, as we suggested in our article last week.
The plan, to be rolled out as part of the ongoing Change4Life campaign, will see the NHS offer up to 1 million nicotine patches to smokers for free. This is the first time this has been available without prescription. Cut-price vouchers for gym and swimming sessions will also be on offer.
The move further demonstrates the Coalitions Government's commitment to "Nudge" theory. This is essentially where instead of telling people what the do, the Government look to how they can "nudge" people into making better lifestyle choices. It's based on the fact that people don't always do what's best for them, but instead of prohibiting the bad options, those that are better are made more attractive. An example would be in a canteen, where the healthy food is placed at eye level and the less healthy items are in a harder to reach position.
The idea of the nudge came about as a result of research conducted by leading American economists, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, who published the appropriately titled Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, back in 2008. Since then, both Barack Obama and David Cameron have become advocates of the theory and have invited the authors to advise on it's integration into policy.
Cameron went so far as to launch a "behavioural insight team", dubbed the "Nudge Unit" by many, whose role over two years is to look at how to prompt people into making better lifestyle decisions.
Despite the new initiative and the ongoing work of the "Nudge Unit", an article over at the Telegraph, suggests that nudging may already have had it's day. In the article, leading economist Eric Beinhocker states that the behavioural understanding of Nudge Theory is only the first step, with the larger goal to understand the networks in which we live.
This view was put forward back in August by another leading Economist, Paul Ormerod, in his excellent essay, N Squared; Public policy and the power of networks, published by the RSA. The essay argues that although the nudge can be effective and valid, our social networks have a much greater influence on how we behave. Nudges should therefore be employed within these structures, with emphasis placed on examining which spread best through a network. The power of the nudge is then combined with that of our networks, hence "N Squared".
Ormerod suggests that harnessing the potential of this could offer Government a tool the likes of which it's never seen, with the ability to "... induce dramatic mass behaviour change." This reaches beyond public health, towards the collaborative vision of the Big Society and even tackling international challenges, such as climate change.
Any long term readers of the Rewarding Marketing Blog may have noticed my propensity to offer Social Media as a relatively untapped well of massive potential for influencing behavioural change. With that in mind, it may not be too difficult to guess where this article is leading.
If social networks offer such a powerful opportunity, then Social Media may be a large part of the means by which that's achieved. Networks within Social Media are far more visible, reachable and measurable than they are in the real world. Ormerod also states that an understanding of the "flow" of networks means only a few need to be nudged, for a huge number of people to be affected. Incorporating this with the viral nature of Social Media doesn't take much of a leap.
Should Government look to adopt any or all of "Network Theory", Social Media could provide the tools to make it a reality.