Highlights from Nudgestock 2017

This past week I had the pleasure to attend Nudgestock 2017 in Folkstone, UK. A one-day nudging conference, the event focused on behavioral science and featured a variety of top practitioners and academics. Below are three of my personal highlights from the event.

Where to look next in innovation

Rory Sutherland, a British advertising executive and speaker at several TED Talks opened the day with an interesting thought. Referencing Google’s 10X approach to ‘moonshot’ innovations, Rory suggested that eventually technological leaps and bounds would become constrained by the laws of physics. As a result, objectively improving products and services by orders of magnitude will become rarer and rarer.

However, Rory instead suggested that the majority of future improvements might instead arise from the subjective experience of the product or service. As an example, Rory cited the well-known finding that people are much happier to wait nine minutes for a late train when they know the arrival time, versus two minutes for late train with no certainty.

Engineers and scientists may debate Rory’s assertion about the limits of technology, but I do see value in his approach. Behavioral science does have the ability to vastly improve experience, even when little change is made to their objective nature. What followed throughout the day was a series of interesting talks from a wide range of speakers working in behavioral sciences.

The mastermind behind the Brexit

Dominic Cummings, the campaign director behind Vote Leave in the Brexit, was easily one of the most interesting speakers to watch. Although I half expected him to be met with a frosty reception, the crowd was polite and applauded both his arrival on stage and the conclusion of his talk. During the 20 minutes he spoke, Dominic discussed (unapologetically) the tactics he used.

To tackle this problem, Dominic enlisted the help of physicists, who evaluated existing evidence for factors affecting voter turnout. They then developed sophisticated mathematical models for communication strategies. Careful language complemented this evidence-backed approach. For example, Dominic revealed that they aimed the key slogan “Take back control” not only at the EU, but also at the incumbent UK government. Similarly, Dominic also acknowledged the deliberate phrasing of controversial ‘send’ 350 million pounds to the EU, and the emotional reaction it developed.

At the end of his talk, Dominic’s first question from the audience was whether he felt any guilt. Without hesitating, he responded that he didn’t, and was quick to point out what he thought were positive outcomes such as the weakened right-wing UKIP. Overall, the talk was a fascinating look at a man David Cameron once called a ‘career psychopath’, and a nice case study of how to use behavioral insights, data science, and determination.

What is best in life?

On a lighter note, the keynote speaker was the charismatic Meik Wiking, the Danish CEO of the independent think tank The Happiness Research Institute. At the beginning, Meik laid out the three main goals of his organization: learning how to measure happiness, explaining differences in happiness, and learning how to raise happiness. Perhaps unsurprisingly, Meik revealed that Scandinavian countries are typically the happiest, and went over some of the factors that explain this. Many of these are intuitive, such as exercise, low rates of poverty, and a good work-life balance. However, others were less intuitive, such as low income inequality.

Meik also challenged the popular notion that money can’t buy happiness. According to him, it does, but only up until a point. After a certain (and moderate level), increasing income exhibits diminishing returns on happiness. To paraphrase Meik, if you’re poor but able to afford food, that money is much more critical to happiness than if you’re rich and can put money towards a dog spa. Which led to his last point. How do you use money to keep buying happiness? He spoke of South Korea, which has seen a surge in wealth in recent decades, but whose population still exhibits abysmally low levels of happiness.

This talk resonated with me the most for two reasons. First, and most obviously, subjective well-being is often just as important as other more concrete measures of well-being. As the example of South Korea shows, it means little to raise people’s standards of living if they are still miserable. Secondly, I think this topic will increase in relevance in the coming decades. As the world creeps towards its goal of ending world poverty by 2030, countries will be increasingly faced with problems such as South Korea’s: leveraging increased wealth into psychological wellbeing.