Paul Adnitt: Why young people are natural nudgers

Young people are far less likely to wait for the establishment to come up with fixes for sticky problems

Paul Adnitt
Paul Adnitt

There can be an element of magic involved when young people take on a social action project.

Often they will be supporting a cause that has personal meaning to them, so their passion fuels an incredible work ethic.

Sometimes they will show incredible levels of empathy, throwing their campaigning weight behind issues affecting others who have experiences very different from their own.

At other times, they spot a simple but outstandingly effective solution, making everyone question why no one else had thought of it sooner. Because today, 5 December, marks International Volunteer Day, focused on the role of volunteers in building resilient communities, it’s a particularly apt time to highlight the simple but significant ways that young people can help find solutions that benefit the wider community.

This was perfectly demonstrated recently when a light-bulb moment from a group of 13 National Citizen Service participants resulted in Sainsbury’s rolling-out their brainwave nationwide.

The teenagers spotted a way to encourage customers to donate more priority items to a Sainsbury’s food bank scheme in its local Exeter branch. The teens worked out that many customers noticed the food bank donation bins only at the end of their shop, when it was either too late or too inconvenient to head back in and buy requested items.

By creating a series of simple but highly visible shelf-edge labels to prompt customers to pick up priority items as they shopped, donations by customers of the store tripled.

As the young people were planning their project, I’m not sure they consulted behavioural economics or psychology textbooks, but they were naturally – and very successfully – applying what has become known as "nudge theory" to an identified problem.

Supermarkets employ teams of highly skilled experts to analyse customer journeys and work up nudges to change behaviours, but these inexperienced teens were able to identify a cheap, simple fix to an in-store problem that will greatly benefit their community.

Dr David Halpern, chief executive of the Behavioural Insights Team, uses the EAST mnemonic as a reminder that, if you want to encourage a behaviour, it needs to be Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely. The shelf-edge labels perfectly embody these principles.

In my role, I repeatedly see how young people naturally apply these criteria to innovative projects that could have far wider application beyond the life of an NCS programme.

Good social action is about identifying something that isn’t working quite how you or your community want it to, then coming up with an idea to fix it.

As Demos found in its 2014 report Introducing Generation Citizen, young people are far less likely to wait for the establishment to come up with these fixes because they don’t have the mentality that it’s someone else’s job to sort it out. When they land on an insight, their natural enthusiasm and agility can lead to strong creative ideas. If you throw a little outrage into the mix, these ideas often spark and take light.

Unencumbered by past failures, young people are far happier to learn and fail fast, not letting the perfect be the enemy of the good. They often naturally take an entrepreneurial approach to getting an idea off the ground by starting on a small scale.

There are also far fewer barriers to knowledge for this generation. For digital natives, not knowing how to do something is no longer an obstacle because there are constant sources of help and guidance at their fingertips. It is impossible to prescriptively teach young people how to be successful entrepreneurs or how to deliver life-changing social action projects, but we must harness the natural skills young people have and empower them to use them for social good.

Back to the Exeter NCS team in question: with the Trussell Trust reporting soaring levels of need at food banks earlier this month, I hope that other supermarkets will make use of the teens’ open-source idea within their stores to drive up essential donations.

It would be a shame if more of us weren’t nudged by the younger generation to support institutions that have sadly become necessary for many people.

Paul Adnitt is programme quality and design lead at the National Citizen Service

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