Counter Intuitive Nudges

Incentives don’t always work in the way we expect and neither do nudges. The British found that different slogans to encourage organ donation had markedly different effects.

 …the least successful message was: “Every day thousands of people who see this page decide to register [as an organ donor],” which ran alongside a picture of a group of smiling people.

….The most successful slogan was one which read: “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one? If so, please help others.”

Ex-post it’s easy to come up with explanations for these differences but ex-ante these are difficult to predict. The unsuccessful slogan, for example, lets people know about a social norm; an approach that has been said to be very successful at reducing binge drinking and electricity consumption, so why didn’t it work for organ donation?

Here’s another peculiar nudge in NYC:

A counterintuitive “pilot program” aimed at reducing garbage in subway stations by removing trash cans appears, against all logic, to be working.

The idea of removing the trash cans came to the MTA in 2011 as a possible method of combating rats…But when the cans were removed from 10 stations, the agency found that not only did rat populations decrease, the amount of litter decreased, too.

My suspicion is that if this is true (and not random noise) then it’s a non-generalizable partial-equilibrium effect. If the trash cans have been removed only in some stations then people may be holding on to their trash knowing that they can dump it at the next station or in a trash can on the street. If you were to remove all or most of the cans this won’t happen.

Do you have other examples of counter-intuitive nudges? And what other explanations can you offer for the trash can effect?

Hat tip: Holman Jenkins.


Comments for this post are closed