Don't influence me
Keira Ball has saved hundred’s of lives and will save many more in the future. After Keira was killed in a road traffic collision, her parents donated her organs to save the lives of four people. One of those she saved was nine year old Max Johnson. Max’s family successfully campaigned for changes to the law on organ donation in England to move from an opt-in system, where people have to proactively agree to be donors, to opt-out, where most people are assumed to agree but have the choice to not be a donor. That means seven hundred more people a year receiving donated organs. But why should a simple change make such a difference? Surely people know that organ donation saves lives and would want to agree to it regardless of how they are asked.
How things are designed helps us make choices. We aren’t always rational in our decisions, we don’t always make the best choice, but when things are well designed to make the best choice the easy choice we’re more likely to make it. Opt-out organ donation makes the choice more difficult by making people think about their own mortality and have to take the action of ticking the box on the form. Opt-in means you don’t even have to think about it now, you can make the right choice without having to do anything.
Researchers from the British Medical Council found that people in countries that use opt-in systems were up to 29 per cent more likely to be willing to donate their own organs and up to 56 per cent more likely to donate their relatives' organs than those living in opt-in countries. That’s a lot of lives saved from designing the system to work in the way that most people want it to.
Behavioural economist Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass Sunstein thought similar things about how systems are designed when they wrote their book about nudge theory. A nudge, they explained, is using positive reinforcement and indirect suggestion as ways to influence the behaviour and decision-making of groups or individuals. It involves altering the environment so that the automatic cognitive processes that we all rely on for quick decision making are triggered to do their desired outcome. Governments and organisations set up Nudge Units and applied the theory to get people to take the actions they wanted them to. Sign-up for pensions, buy chocolate bars, recycle. Anything it seemed, could be nudged.
And then, fourteen years after Thaler and Sunstein’s book, experimental psychologist Maximilian Maier and colleagues demonstrated how a new analysis technique on the previous research on nudge theory showed that actually, nudges have no effect on the choices people make.
Nudges don’t work. But good design doesn’t need to nudge. Good design isn’t about setting up the environment to trick people into doing something, it’s about making choices simple to understand and to easy to do. Opt-out organ donation doesn’t rely on indirect suggestion to influence people into agreeing, it helps people make an informed choice by default.
It turns out that influencing people’s behaviour isn’t as easy as we’d think. In 2016, Russia’s Internet Research Academy pointed it’s Twitter bots at the U.S. presidential election, causing panic that the outcome would be affected by a foreign power and that democracy was under threat. Researchers from the Polarization Lab at Duke University analysed the effect of the Twitter bots and found that they had only brief and minimal interactions with people and did not result in any changes in political opinions. So, perhaps the idea that we can all be influenced to change our political ideals, our shopping habits, and our health behaviours through social media, digital advertising and deceptive design patterns on websites just isn’t true. It takes a lot more than gentle persuasion.
If you want to influence the behaviour of lots of people, you have to be blunt about it. In 1935, a Nazi propaganda film called ‘Triumph of the Will’ was broadcast widely. Hitler believed that propaganda must have no element of doubt, it had to be unambiguous. Riefenstahl, the film’s director and producer, recounted the conversation he had with Hitler where Hitler explained he “wanted a film which would move, appeal to, impress an audience which was not necessarily interested in politics.” Adorn and Horkheimer, two Jewish philosophers who fled Nazi Germany, wrote about how broadcast television lead to the rise of fascism, and how ‘Triumph of the Will’ played a part in that, because it had such a mass culture effect of coalescing people around an ideology.
But propaganda like that doesn’t work in the 21st century. We don’t all watch the same film at the same time any more. There is no group experience. No sense of belonging or social pressure to join in with the group and believe what the propaganda tells us. And without that, there is no mass culture because there is no mass.
Modern digital media unwittingly broke the influence that mass culture TV had over large groups of people. Now, everyone can’t be influenced all at the same time with the same message. Each of our Twitter feeds are unique to us, so are our browsing history, our playlists and our purchase history. Personalised digital media doesn’t enable the same degree of influence as mass media because it cannot provide a group experience. It creates niche cultures where small groups of people share very narrow interests with others. Our personalised digital media experiences are shaped for us and only us, and we worry that it influences us to watch the latest series on Netflix, as if we weren’t going to do that anyway.
We won’t be nudged, we shan’t be moved.