Six things you probably didn't know you've been tricked into doing

Ministers are turning to behavioural psychology to tackle some of the most contentious and intractable problems facing the Government, including illegal immigration and Islamic extremism.

Five years ago Britain became one of the first countries in the world to embrace “nudge theory” – using insights from behavioural psychology that champion positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to influence government programmes and encourage people to change their behaviour.

Ministers set up a Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) in the Cabinet Office, which achieved remarkable early results. Here are some things they've helped trick people into doing:

1. Switching your energy tariff

The team devised a message that was printed on envelopes sent to elderly winter-fuel allowance recipients. It said: “Many people save up to £200 on their energy bills by switching tariff. Visit goenergyshopping.co.uk.” The number of people visiting the site increased by 20 per cent.

2. Getting the right prescription

Misread prescriptions are one of the biggest causes of avoidable harm to patients. The unit redesigned prescription charts used by clinicians. Rather than write dosages by hand, on the new forms doctors circled which dose applied, reducing the number of illegible forms..

3. Applying to university

A trial in 39 schools in Somerset found that students who received a talk emphasising the lifestyle benefits of university were significantly more likely to apply. Those who received written information were significantly less likely to want to do so.

4. Paying tax on time

The unit trialled letters warning recipients that not paying tax would be seen as deliberate rather than oversight. After 11 weeks the amount of tax paid by those who got the amended letters was £15.80 compared with £4.35 from those to whom the standard letter was sent.

5. Having a diverse police force

The unit’s analysis found a disproportionate drop in black and minority ethnic police applicants passing a particular test. BIT adjusted the text that applicants saw before the test – and thereby helped to close the gap with white applicants.

6. Giving money to charity

How do you get an investment banker to donate a day’s salary to charity? The unit tried various approaches and found personalised emails and sweets were the most powerful interventions, boosting the proportion of participants donating from 5 per cent to 17 per cent.

More: Jon Stewart has quietly been running a charity in his spare time

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