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If a sugary drink had a “stop” sign on the shelf next to it, would it stop you from buying it? These small ‘nudges’, and the large impact they can have on human behaviour, has been revealed in more than 130 controlled trials carried out by the UK government’s behavioural impact team.

The team, also known as the Whitehall nudge unit, focus on designing policies that nudges us to act in a different way. Much of their work is based on ‘nudge theory’. Last week, one of the founding fathers of “nudge” theory, Richard Thaler, received the Nobel Prize in Economics, recognising his work in the field of behavioural economics. In the best-selling book, ‘Nudge’ Thaler explores the concept of a ‘nudge’ and how a small prod or prompt can encourage humans to make different decisions. For example, sales of sugary drinks dropped when “stop” signs were placed next to the drinks and reoffending by speeding drivers dropped after letters to drivers were reworded. Indeed, Theresa May announced at the Conservative Party conference this year that she will change the UK law, moving the country from an opt-in to an opt-out system, an example of how policy can change human behaviour.

Psychology students could consider the impact of cognitive biases on our decision making, and how these biases can lead to irrational decision making. From a neurological standpoint, they might also want to think about the areas of the brain, particularly the prefrontal cortex, and how this area of the brain regulates, controls and manages our thoughts and behaviour.

Politics students could look at the impact that the government’s behavioural insights team has had on reshaping policies, in areas from health to tax and consumer affairs, and how these can prompt citizens to act differently. Philosophy students could consider whether such ‘nudging’ behaviour is an infringement of civil liberties.

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