Still being absolutely blown away by this year’s #Nudgestock event, I wanted to give my friends and colleagues who could not attend the chance to at least get a small glimpse of what has been going on last Friday at the UK’s biggest Festival of Behavioural Science, organised by @OgilvyChange and the exceptional @rorysutherland – who made my attendance at #Nudgestock possible even though the event was already completely sold out <thank you, Rory!!!>.

Rory opened up the event with a keynote in which he introduced the concept of #innervation, perception based innovation to literally “synthesize value out of nothing”, or more specifically only out of a changed perception whilst the objective product or service stays unchanged. Based on the classic example of how easy it is to reduce the value of a restaurant experience by factor 10 if the restaurant cleaner has not done his job properly, he argued that it must on the other hand also be possible to increase the perceived value of a product or service experience by factor 10. In turn he gave a couple of examples, including the much cited case of the easyJet pilot pointing out the value of having a fast shuttle-bus service from the parking position directly to the passport check to help his passengers appreciate rather than complain about the situation.

After the keynote, Dr. Oliver Scott Curry who works on the evolution of morality at the Institute of Cognitive and Evolutionary Anthropology at Oxford, kicked off the actual event with an exciting talk about the similarities of morality around the globe. For the talk he used a very pragmatic definition of morality as “set of rules for promoting co-operation in non-zero sum games”, i.e. mutually beneficial co-operation settings.

Especially interesting to hear was that, even when using anthropological sources for morally relevant behaviour from around the world, he was able to create a consistent “periodic table of ethics” which points to the fact that basic rules of moral behaviour seem to have evolved early in our human history and are – with some cultural variations – still present in all cultures. Among these basic moral rules he specifically pointed to the following seven:

  1. Kinship (support in family settings)
  2. Mutualism (loyalty, teamwork, conformity in small groups / work settings)
  3. Exchange (reciprocity, gratitude, guilt, forgiveness in open social settings)
  4. Responsibility due to large power (“hawk”, bravery, generosity, noblesse oblige)
  5. Humility (“dove”, respect, difference, obedience)
  6. Fairness (fair division of value in social situations)
  7. Possession (respect of ownership)

With these rules in mind, organisations or companies can now obviously try to align the core values more closely to natural moral impulses, something that for example the US army seems to have done very well with its core values being: loyalty, duty, respect, selflessness, honour, integrity and courage.  

Next up was former professional cricket player Ed Smith, who talked about over-confidence in sport and the value of scepticism in winning. Especially interesting was his definition of sport as “transmutation of risk into certainty” which made his talk much more relevant to a larger set of other life contexts, including business and politics. His key message was that you have to be prepared to stay skeptical in any situation that involves risk and where confidence and conformity is merely an excuse for not fully exploring the full range of possibilities and options available in any given situation. The take home insight from this talk therefore was: 

“You have to be prepared to be alone if you want to be innovative” – but whilst being lonely and uncertain in the process, you can later at least console yourself with winning.

The next talk came from Andrew Sheerin from TerrorBull Games, a company that uses board games to tackle real life dilemmas in a subversive way. Andrew focused in his talk about the persuasive power of play and its ability to change perception. He also referred to “Homo Ludens”, a book written by Dutch cultural theorist Johan Huizinga. In his book, Huizinga established 5 principles of play which can be used as mechanisms for behavioural change and reflection:

  1. Play is free, is in fact freedom
  2. Play is not “ordinary” or “real” life
  3. Play is distinct from “ordinary” life both as to locality and duration
  4. Play creates order, is order. Play demands order absolute and supreme
  5. Play is connected with no material interest, and no profit can be gained from it

In the remainder of his talk Andrew then demonstrated how games can actually help instigate reflection even on critical issues like terrorism by using the example of his board game “War on Terror”, which has been played by American soldiers in Iraq as well as by British anti-terror professionals, in turn raising questions and prompting reflections about the validity of their strategies and actions.

Andrew ended his talk with the advice how to create own games using the three principles of metaphor, inversion and exaggeration and the funny warning that play can change your perception.

After a short break #Nudgestock continued with a talk from Steve Colgan, writer and former member of the Metropolitan Police, who rightly pointed out that policing is much more effective when focusing on preventing crime rather than trying to catch and punish the perpetrators. Throughout his talk Colgan gave several examples from his time in the award-winning Met Police Problem Solving Unit where he used behavioural techniques and creative thinking rather than mere enforcement methods to solve difficult social issues.

Colgan was followed by Diana Fleischman, an evolutionary psychologist who is interested in sexology, disgust and effective altruism. In her very interesting talk, Diana pointed out how females have evolved to be effective behavioural trainers, “evolved trainers” in her terminology, specifically in relationships. As evidence for these evolved abilities especially of women Diana pointed to their better performance with regard to quick emotional shifts, memory, facial expressions and gift giving and explained these features with evolutionary pressures related to their relative limitations regarding physical strength, their need to rear children as well as requirements for intra-group adaptation.

The features Diana described as “evolved trainer” are instrumental for our need to successfully navigate complex social contexts by effectively getting people to like us and do what we want by associating us in their eye with as much pleasure as possible – a principle that brands also use successfully by associating themselves for example with prestige, attractiveness, happiness and other desirable characteristics in their advertising.

The next talk by Dominic Cummings, political advisor and director of the #VoteLeave campaign that led to Britain’s vote to leave the EU in the EU Referendum last year, was probably the most controversial of the day. Whilst obviously not everyone in the room was d’accord with the results of Dominic’s work, it became evident during his talk that Dominic effectively used both state of the art behavioural science as well as machine learning technology to be successful in his campaign.

The three behavioural key principles he based his campaign on were loss aversion, risk aversion and anti-establishment resentment. These principles resonated well with a general public that considered immigration and the Euro crisis to be an increasing problem and had otherwise a rather small knowledge about the EU. Dominic was able to harness these behavioural principles and aspects about the general public practically by using machine learning based big data analysis using exactly the same advertising classifiers as Facebook. That allowed him to target his audience in the most effective way by allocating both his online and offline resources were they could make the biggest difference.  

Whilst certainly an example for a successful practical application of behavioural science, Dominic’s talk also pointed to an ethical problem of the use of behavioural and analytical techniques for political goals that might or might not be aligned with social good. After the talk several discussions were picking this issue up by questioning the ethics of “behavioural mercenaries” and asking for effective ethical limitations of the use of behavioural science principles in the social and political space. The bigger question however might be to what degree behavioural science actually forces us to re-think traditional assumptions about our democracy being based on free will, rationality and individual responsibility rather than herd mentality, bias and emotion based manipulability and analytically driven advertising power.

Almost the opposite example of how behavioural principles can be used for social good then came from a talk by Inkpact’s founder and CEO Charlotte Pierce, featured in Forbes 30 under 30 and in the Maserati 100. Charlotte showed how she used the current tech-driven efficiency trend in communication to set up a company that is entirely based on behaviour-driven effectiveness instead of mere efficiency: whilst we all receive hundreds of emails every day which automatically renders most of them completely useless, inkpact uses handwritten letters crafted by socially disadvantaged groups in order to help brands and marketers increase the impact of their campaigns.

Most inspiring aspect of the talk was Charlotte’s key message to become #unforgettable by bringing fun and unexpectedness into your business, and specifically by treating your customers like you would treat your loved ones. Thank you Charlotte, what an inspiring message!

Next up was Wing Commander Keith Dear, who was giving a very intriguing and academically sound talk about the influence of feeling watched on human behaviour. Dear’s military background made him part of international peace keeping missions involving the often tricky challenge how to enforce peace in multinational contexts where the conflicting interests of the different stakeholders normally prevent an effective control of peaceful behaviour.

The solution he proposed was to monitor everyone’s behaviour in order to make it subsequently publicly available via video streaming – a brilliant idea based on the insight that compliance and conformity in human behaviour increases when humans feel watched. Dear was able to show that this behavioural tendency evolved quite early in our human evolutionary history based on social group dynamics to punish freeloaders – which forced them to adapt their behaviour whenever they were watched.

Dear then went on to show that similar adaptations exist across a range of various different species including birds and that this adaptation might in humans even be able to explain why we have developed supernatural beliefs of surveillance once our social group sizes surpassed a certain scale. On a practical note Dear also reported about the success of using this principle for theft-prevention by deterring for example bike thieves with a pair of eyes printed on a sticker which then would be fixed to at risk places.  

In the following talk, social health and knowledge networking expert Julia Hobsbawm went on to draw some interesting parallels between our general concept of health and an expanded health concept that can also be applied to our modern information society. Specifically she was criticising the way we over-feed on information and social networking, effectively creating “infobesity” and networks that are unhealthy like clogged up arteries. Her main message was to restrict ourselves more with regard to our digital information behaviour, advocating limitations of scale, time and type of our digital communication in order to preserve our informational health.

Just before the next break Sarah Harding from Kinetic and Brogane Colclough from JCDecaux demonstrated in their talk how they were able to increase the effectiveness of their outdoor advertising campaign by using behavioural principles – effectively increasing the likelihood of people trying crickets and grubs by 60%.

What followed was one of the most exciting talks of the day in which Meik Wiking, CEO of the Copenhagen based Happiness Research Institute and author of the “Little Book of Hygge” gave a short summary of what science can tell us today about the key factors of happiness. In his short overview on the subject he discussed each of the main happiness factors, including health, freedom, wealth, trust, altruism and social support.

Meik’s most interesting points included insights into the diminishing marginal utility of wealth when it comes to happiness and well-being (also discussed here), raising the question how especially wealthier nations in future will be able to convert wealth into well-being. Another interesting question he discussed was based on the fact that a direct pursuit of happiness seems to be less likely to be successful – meaning that happiness can rather be considered a byproduct of other meaningful activities. Ultimately, Meik was also able to demonstrate how specific social factors like having children impacts happiness across different countries, with more individualistic countries like the United States showing the biggest happiness declines whilst countries like Denmark or specifically Spain are rather less affected.

Most important take home message from Meik’s talk was: happiness can best be found as a by-product, probably not of conspicuous consumption but of meaningful activities connecting us with others.

Penultimate speaker was philosopher and technology ethicist Blay Whitby who explained what aviation can tell us about the role of user interfaces and how to avoid fatal accidents. Key lessons of his talk included that fact that blame does not help fixing a problem but what is needed to avoid (future) accidents is objective collection and unbiased analysis of data. Another important take home message of his talk was to learn from the mistakes of others.

The final speaker of the event was Geoffrey Miller, evolutionary psychologist and author of the books “Spent” and “The Mating Mind”. Miller was giving a talk about virtue signaling and its role in modern marketing. In his talk he pointed out how brands can use the Big 5 personality traits to tailor specific virtue signalling messages to their target audiences based on the brand values that best resonate with the respective personality structure of their audience.

Key assumption of his approach is that the Big 5 represent stable, reliable and heritable trait differences that can predict behaviour across cultures and situations. His two key take home messages were that a market segmentation by virtue signaling would be much richer than by mere demographics and that brands are effectively able to add additional value for their consumers by building virtue signalling into their product and service benefits.

To summarise this year’s #Nudgestock event: You rarely see so much high quality insights presented by high calibre experts in one day. And it is hard to imagine that anyone would still doubt the relevance and effectiveness of behavioural insights for business and specifically marketing after all these practical examples. So if anything, #Nudgestock2017 was an inspiration and challenge to learn more and apply even smarter and deeper behavioural insights to our everyday business challenges to render the output of our daily business activities 10 times or even exponentially more valuable if we think about the possibility to also include consumers themselves into the creation and distribution of our products and service.