Exclusive: Inside Denmark's nudge unit

By Nurfilzah Rohaidi

Interview with Andreas Jespersen, Associate Researcher, iNudgeyou.

Design changes your behaviour. From the layout of a building, to how lunch options are displayed, small and seemingly insignificant details in environments can encourage you to act in different ways.

Danish government agencies are only too aware of this, and are working closely with iNudgeyou, a behavioural science unit based in Copenhagen, to solve problems using evidence-based changes. GovInsider caught up with Andreas Jespersen, Associate Researcher at iNudgeyou to find out two key ways that his agency has improved business registrations, and healthy eating patterns across the nation.

1. The right prompt at the right time

In Denmark, businesses have a legal obligation to ensure that their “master data” - postal addresses, contact information and the like - are correct in the central business registry.

The Danish Business Authority wanted to see if they could get businesses to take an active role in keeping their data updated on virk.dk. It is a one-stop-shop portal for all business-related forms, reportings and filing options from all public authorities in Denmark.

Instead of sending a letter to request information - the traditional approach - the agency worked with iNudgeyou on experimenting with a new approach.

Over the course of three weeks, when business owners or employees logged onto the portal, they would see a pop-up window that displays the master data the system currently has.

It would prompt them to verify the data, and make any changes if necessary, rather than asking for all of their information again.

“We’ve reduced the complexity of updating this information, but we’ve also made sure to prompt at times when we know that it would be a good time to update - like right after New Year’s Day,” Jespersen explains.

In the course of the experiment, the popup was viewed over 14,000 times. Over half of the users verified that their data was correct, and the number of changes to master data almost doubled compared to the rest of the year.

175 additional businesses per day changed their master data in those three weeks, according to an iNudgeyou blog. “It’s a very effective, low-cost way of getting businesses to comply,” Jespersen believes. He adds that in iNudgeyou’s experience, “many of the best results come if you change some of the infrastructure”.

In digital services, even a simple pop-up right after a user logs in can spur them into complying. “Many of the best results come if you change some of the infrastructure.”

2. Rethinking the supermarket aisle

Changing the physical environment is one simple and proven way to obtain results, Jespersen continues, and the supermarket is where consumers can be nudged into buying healthier foods. Sustainability is a key focus in the capital Copenhagen.

iNudgeyou has previously worked with NGOs to promote healthier and locally-produced foods - which are “less demanding on the environment” - in certain supermarkets. First, they studied consumers’ shopping patterns.

“We used scanner data to see - if you buy this type of product, you are very likely to buy this product as well,” he says. Then, it was a matter of simply placing healthier, locally-produced vegetables closer to meat products, for example, so that the shopper can “make the decision simultaneously”.

This makes it easier for the shopper to buy the healthier, locally-produced vegetable - simply because of proximity. “Instead of making two purchasing decisions, we help you by reducing it to one,” says Jesperson.

While marketing and advertising agencies have used these techniques for years, the government is taking a more data-driven approach. Marketing agencies “would have had a harder time explaining why it works”, he points out.

“We have a more systematic and scientific approach to the process, which is easier to explain why it works and what kind of effects we can predict,” he says.

Jespersen believes that the principles behind behavioural economics can work anywhere in the world, despite first emerging in the US.

Cultural differences do not apply when one considers that “there seems to be certain patterns in how we take in information and how we react to it, but these patterns are not dependent on things such as culture or social status,” he points out.

“People are psychological creatures.” “People are psychological creatures.” Nobel prize-winning economist Richard Thaler says that it is best to assume that “everything matters”. Sound advice for governments hoping to nudge their citizens in the right direction.

Main image by Roman BoedCC BY 2.0; screenshot from iNudgeyou