4 quick questions:

  1. Why, if the laid path goes all around a square of grass, is it likely there’ll be an unofficial path cutting one or more corners?
  2. Why are you advised to have the smell of fresh coffee or baking bread, plus fresh flowers, in your home if you are expecting visitors interested in buying your house?
  3. Why does litter accumulate in an ever-expanding pile – even if there is no bin?
  4. When is the best time to sell fertiliser to farmers?

The answers will be given shortly, but in the meantime….

Between 2001 and 2007 David Halpern’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) was a central strategic arm of Government, located in the Cabinet Office.

During that time it developed some hugely successful strategies, later developed into a coherent approach now known as Nudge Theory.

In essence, Nudge Theory “is essentially a means of encouraging or guiding behaviour, but without mandating or instructing, and ideally without the need for heavy financial incentives or sanctions” (Halpern).

Nudge Theory has at its heart 4 key factors that together ‘nudge’ people to behave as required.

These 4 factors are summarised in the mnemonic EAST, which stands for:

  1.             Easy
  2.             Attractive
  3.             Socially Acceptable
  4.             Timely

These are the four factors present in the answers to our questions above.

Easy: Simply, people choose the shortest, easiest route between destinations. Why would they follow the longer path?

Attractive: Such smells and visuals are attractive to most people, and so put them in a more positive, ‘buying’ mode.

Socially acceptable: Once someone – one individual – has established the site as ‘fit for litter’, then they have created a norm – something socially acceptable. So it becomes ‘acceptable’ for others to do the same. They might not have initiated the litter dump – but are quite happy to support it, once it has been established.

Timely: The best time to sell fertiliser to farmers? Not, apparently, at crop sowing time, which would seem logical; but at harvest time – because that is when the farmer is most likely to be cash-rich.

The converse is, of course true: reversing EAST (ie WEST??) creates difficulties to inhibit or prevent unwanted behaviours. So for example:

Easy > Difficult

Oranges are usually the last fruit left in a bowl, because they are difficult (slow and messy) to peel and eat

Attractive > Unattractive

There are many instances of recruiters and interviewers being dismissive of candidates who, though fully meeting other selection criteria, are rejected on the grounds of ‘appearance’ – clothing, tattoos, piercings, etc. All of these may be illegitimate criteria – but may none the less, have an impact, because they are thought ‘unattractive’.

Socially acceptable > Socially unacceptable

Increasingly our culture in the UK is to regard not wearing a seat belt and drink driving as socially unacceptable

Timely > Poor timing

A library I know had a book sale, with many attractively priced books on offer. Unfortunately the library was closed at lunchtime, then again at 4pm…

Whether using EAST to create required or preferred behaviour, or to prevent and minimise unwanted behaviour, the result is all the more likely if the 4 factors are all present, and all pull in the same direction – ie are ‘stacked’. So for example cutting corners on a square lawn is a stacked EAST: cutting the corner is easier, attractive, becomes socially acceptable (“others are doing it, so it must be ok if I do it too”), and timely (saves time).


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How might a knowledge of Nudge Theory in general, and EAST in particular, help with student motivation, attendance and behaviour?


How easy or difficult do we make things for our learners? If you are a teacher, or manage teachers, or if you are part of support services, make 2 lists: things you provide or manage that are easy for the learner to access and use; and things that are difficult.

Easy?                                                                         Difficult?

(Remember to do this from the learners’ point of view, not your own). When you have compiled your two lists, go to each item, and decide whether it is in the correct column. For example, you may be making something difficult, which would be better if it were easy; and/or you might be making something easy, when it would be better if it were difficult.

As a test of this idea – which of the two columns would you place the following in?

  •                         Timetable and room allocation
  •                         Lunchtime servery
  •                         Learners getting a good grade
  •                         Misbehaviour
  •                         Access to 1-1 support
  •                         Exclusion
  •                         Attending college during hours of darkness
  •                         Paying attention to the lesson in the classroom


Apply the same principle as above: create two columns – attractive and unattractive – and allocate then adjust your current provision accordingly. What could you do to make something more attractive? What could you do to make something less attractive?

Socially acceptable

Does the college create or accept norms that help or hinder learner attendance, achievement and behaviour? There may well be a clash between norms which are learner-centred and driven, and those which are college (staff)-centred and driven.

This is an area where double standards can be very costly. However staff behave legitimises that behaviour for learners. So on the one hand positive behaviours from staff help create behaviour norms for others to follow.

Equally, it is difficult to have a behaviour norm on paper, that is not adopted and delivered consistently by all staff in practice. Three obvious examples: staff not wearing ID lanyards; teachers turning up late for lessons; and staff taking hot drinks into classrooms where the notices on the wall expressly permit water only.


One interesting issue on this is ‘travel to work’ time for staff and learners. One group (learners) may depend more on public transport than the other group (staff). This almost always includes more inconvenience for learners than staff.

Yet timetables and attendance hours are (inevitably?) set by staff. Are such college arrangements ‘timely’ with regard to learner travel options? It might be an idea for every teacher to look at their class register, and find out who travels the farthest to college.

Then go to the area that person lives in, and travel the journey they have to travel, at the required times. See if the trip and college requirements coincide, in the sense of being ‘timely’.

EAST can be a useful tool to either test behavioural nudging, or to lead on it. One other idea might be to conduct a college ‘walk through’ – either of the whole college, or a particular area, or a single lesson, and assess the experience against the checklist of EAST: how easy, attractive, socially acceptable and timely is that experience for the learner?

Arnie Skelton, Managing Director, Effective Training & Development Ltd

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