Alerts, soft incentives with limited scope

For more than a decade, “alerts” have become an essential part of the suite of action tools aimed at modifying citizens’ behavior. In the United States, President Barack Obama created The first “drive unit” in 2009, followed by Prime Minister David Cameron in the UK in 2010, etc. in France , Alerts now depend on the Inter-Ministerial Directorate for General Transformation in Percy.

The first scientists to work on the concept of Pay They are Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler with publication their book Alert: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2008. American researchers define their concept as:

“Alert is an aspect of choice design that changes the behavior of individuals predictably without prohibiting any of the choices and without significantly altering their economic incentives. For an intervention to be pure nudge, the intervention must be easy and inexpensive.”

Thus, the principle of alerts is to modify the behavior of individuals using motivating and inexpensive processes, but above all without depriving users of any form of freedom (this is what the authors call libertarian paternalism). To do so, these alerts use different cognitive biases to encourage individuals to adopt better behaviors, for themselves, but also for society in general.

Cognitive biases

Among the examples of “famous alerts” we find, for example, pedestrian crossings to slow motorists, or even double ashtrays that allow you to vote between two options (Lord of the Rings or Star Wars? Vacations on the sea or mountain?) to prevent smokers from throwing Cigarette butts on the floor.

What is the “push theory” that won the Nobel Prize in Economics? (Pruitt, 2017).

The alerts theory is based on one of the foundationsbehavioral economics : The individual does not always aim to maximize his profits and often makes small mistakes. These small discrepancies are actually cognitive biases, a set of potential distortions between reality and the individual’s own interpretation. According to Daniel Kahneman, an American-Israeli psychologist, and Amos Tversky, an Israeli psychologist, they allowExplain a number of behaviors that are judged to be irrational.

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As cognitive biases, we can cite Bias for the status quo This leads the individual to experience a reluctance to renew due to his appreciation of the benefit/risk ratio which then appears to him to be harmful. There is also an entrenched bias that makes it difficult for an individual to reconsider the first impression he might have about a subject or person.

To work, the alert is particularly inspired by Kahneman’s work Two systems of the human brain It takes effect during individual choices. One can be described as ‘automatic’ that acts instantly, unconsciously and quickly, and the other is more ‘reflexive’ which is more intentional, but more slowly.

To simplify, we can say that alerts will therefore depend on the “automatic” system, resulting in behavior on the part of the individual without the need for thought, or even awareness of the device.

Limited event

Alerts have many advantages: other than avoiding limiting the freedom of individuals, they are generally inexpensive and Show some efficiency. Thus, alerts make it possible to break out of the classic reward / punishment system while offering a sufficient cost / effectiveness ratio to become a tool in the service of public authorities on an international scale.

However, these soft incentives are only effective To some extent. Alone, they cannot be satisfied with facing the reality of the goals to be achieved, for example if one aims toParis Agreement on the climate.

Indeed, as we have seen, alertness is based on the cognitive biases that are the reactions of the individual facing a situation, and thus the very principle is to act with each individual individually. However, in the words of Aristotle, “man is a social animal” who lives in society and thus interacts with others. Thus we find ourselves in the presence of an instrument based on individual prejudices within a system based on collectivism. The contradiction is clear.

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Take the case of the piano-style music staircase installed in 2009 at the exit of the Odenplan metro in Stockholm, Sweden to encourage passengers to take stairs instead of using an escalator: it works not only because it provides a fun device, but also because it allows a game with other people It introduces scene, interactions and opens up a social space, and videos of using the tool show it well.

Then the following question arises: Could the lack of group consideration be a hindrance to efficiency?

In this case, let’s take the case of health crisis management. Several batches have been used (Reward lexicon, communication about responsibility to others, etc.) And if we follow the path, it has been shown to be effective, with the approval rate for health policies rising with each announcement of restriction of liberties. But at the same time, many individuals felt excluded, clashed, and Demonstrations in the name of individual liberties I have seen today.



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This situation particularly reflects the fact that Ignore the alert Create collective actors With the values ​​this implies, such as the desire to engage as a member of a group with common ideals and goals. Finally, the alert gave way to a system considered highly private in terms of individual liberties.

In addition, alerts are also a problemEthicsFor even if they do not force anyone, there is no obligation, it seems, to declare them clearly. When they are, it can also have the opposite effect by creating rejection on the part of individuals. But if the alert is not displayed as such, are we not in a form of manipulation beyond a simple stimulus, beyond a mere alert?



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Nevertheless, alerts remain a very interesting tool, especially thanks to their ability to raise awareness. Accompanying these devices with explanatory campaigns allows for good results and should provide a one-time transformation into a permanent behavior by being an entry point into consciousness.

This observation is even stronger when it comes to payments made for children. In fact, these tools tend to be effective enough Keeps its effects even after removing the device. So alerts are also a fun way to learn.

Towards a citizen’s tool

Alerts can also become a tool in the service of community members to provide them with the possibility of being highlighted Topics that seem to be priorities As for where they live. This type of approach, based on volunteering within regions, could attract residents and would be an appropriate circumstance to enhance the effectiveness of alerts.

Coordination can be done for neighborhood councils, for example, by involving municipal councils for support, structuring, logistics and finance.

Alerts are a tool of public authorities that, in many cases, affect public places. They must therefore be overseen by municipalities, but the partnership between citizens and public authorities can also allow alerts to become a sustainable tool for changing behaviour. When will there be local ‘pay units’?


This article was published as part of the Fête de la science (October 7-17, 2022 in mainland France and November 10-27, 2022 abroad and worldwide), in which The Conversation France participates. The theme of this new edition will be: “Climate Change”. Find all events in your area on the site Fetedelascience.fr.

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