National Comment Comment

Eat Out to Help Out: Behaviour or Science

Why even in the COVID-19 era of complete unknowns, we can still anticipate the numbers hitting the high street for a half price lunch

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COVID-19 is a complete unknown but people are more predictable. In the absence of hard facts, tracking patterns and human tendencies has often been the only option for finding certainty through the pandemic. If the speed of science is far out of reach, human behaviour is well within 2 metres.

Beyond disease and behaviour, there is a further marriage - economics and behaviour. The field of behavioural economics shifts the framework away from the mainstream rational actor, recognising human decision making as biased and short-sighted. A rational actor who had stayed away from restaurants for months would not have forsaken their health for the sake of £5 off lunch. Yet the phenomenal swing on restaurant uptake must have involved the persuasion of some.  We follow group norms, stick to the defaults, respond to visible and new incentives, behave according to ego. These are not the attributes of rigorous logical actors. But that doesn’t mean they’re not predictable.

Emerging in the 1970s with the study of behavioural divergence from economic assumptions, the field of behavioural economics has since come to produce reliable models and form a bedrock of recent policy. It went mainstream in 2008 with “Nudge”, the best-selling book from Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler and lawyer, Cas Sunstein, favoured by Obama and Cameron. In 2010, the Cabinet’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was born. Nicknamed the “nudge unit”, the group was behind much of the initial Coronavirus policy. An alternative to direct paternalism, nudge theory presented a way around the strict lock-down measures, with BIT providing the tools – little “nudges” on hand washing and distancing. This has made them the object of criticism for reluctance to lock-down.

When it came to 50% off, evidently, many were persuaded. And we can learn three reasons why: reduced decision architecture, norms and salience.

One, it made a decision easier. We’re more likely to respond to reduced choices, and the scheme was a simple default. Is going out to eat worth the coronavirus risk? A lot of variables there. A key one – cost – pretty much taken out of the equation. No 35% calculations, no discount cards, just a blanket win.

Two, it played on norms. A key aspect of nudge theory is the importance of perceived behaviour of others. Reduced price food lent itself to pictures on social media and the FOMO effect. Seeing images of meals online “primed” a perception of greater normality, and we followed the crowd.

Three, it was salient – “visible and new” as is coveted by BIT. According to nudge theory, humans react to visible changes, but their effect subsides. Did you find yourself racking up side dishes with minimal rational thought? With the frame posts removed, we revert to our automatic systems, and the novelty here kicked them into gear. The snappy phrase was able to be plastered across billboards, novelty in being unprecedented and time limited.

No doubt, it was a persuasive move. Faced with around a 41% reduction before the scheme, the final week saw a 261% increase in restaurant purchase on the previous year. At a cost of £522m, this is a substantial spending by the government. It’s close to half of the money set aside for the substantial matter of decarbonisation, though paling in comparison to the 9.4bn for furlough. Was the scheme a blank cheque? Interestingly, it seems not – a look at its announcement in July shows its cost was almost exactly predicted. This strength of behavioural modelling from the government has allowed them to generate millions in hospitality revenue for the economy.

The problem with the explosion in behavioural focus is that a danger arises when behavioural science outstrips biological understanding. A common critique of nudge theory in scientific contexts is that it can make persuasive changes before their ramifications are well understood. Perhaps we may be seeing an element of this in the latest six person rule. The accuracy of behavioural modelling can nudge us out of lockdown, but without the scientific testing infrastructure, these economic measures are a risky game.

Coronavirus has certainly changed our perception of what is paternalistically possible, and in the absence of facts, behavioural modelling has played a key part in the government’s choices. Attention to routine behaviours and human psychology in policy is certainly having its moment. But whether it benefits society or not may be called into question if it leaves the essential science behind.

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