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Tom de Bruyne

When Accountants rule the country

When accountants rule the country – irrationality and politics

By | All, Government & Politics

The dangerous economic myths
underlying political decision-making

When Accountants rule the country

Picture by Neil Moralee, shared under a Creative Common license

This is going to be a slightly longer post than usual. I want to share a couple of thoughts on a subject that fascinates me: irrationality in governing. I want to argue that billions of Euro’s are being spent by governments, based on bad economic ideas. These ideas are very pervasive, because they provide politicians with the illusion that they’re working very hard. But in reality, they’re making things worse.

How do you want your tax money to be spent?

As a tax-payer, you want to assume that your government uses its tax-income to make smart, rational decisions. You would like political debates to be about which investments would yield the highest societal return. Should we invest more in education? In infrastructure? In the military? Should we invest more in stimulating entrepreneurs to develop thriving businesses that generate jobs? Or should we focus more on redistributing wealth to encourage the poorest to get out of poverty? Should we accelerate spending in green energy, or is it better to remain addicted to burning cheap fossil fuels?

Spending billions based on irrationality

Your average Western government has to make a yearly decision on how to spend billions of Euros, Pounds or Dollars. So you want that decision to be based on evidence and facts. You don’t want it to be based on irrationality. 

The problem is: this is how governments think. 

In the book “Money and Government: The past and future of economics“, History Professor – and Keynes biographer – Robert Skidelsky argues very eloquently that governments worldwide use bad economics to make big decisions on government spending. And some problematic myths form the foundation of these lousy decisions.

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Myth 1: Whenever possible, leave things to the market. 

The underlying idea is that governments are not productive and bureaucratic, whereas markets tend to create increasingly better service for less money. This cliche is very pervasive and very wrong. Mariana Mazzucato demonstrates in “The Entrepreneurial State” that every piece of innovation that sits within an iPhone has been funded and developed with governmental funding. And vice versa: Markets have a deep tendency towards monopolies, profit maximization and obsession with shareholder value. This market tendency becomes problematic when it concerns critical services like health care and public transport. 

Myth 2: Governments need to be prudent with money

Our Dutch government loves to compliment itself with having one of the best budgets in the world. Our national debt is rapidly decreasing due to the disciplined cost-cutting efforts of our government. Every European government decided that the best answer to the financial crisis was austerity. Sounds reasonable. If you’re in debt, you have to stop spending and start paying back. But ‘reasonable’ is not the same as ‘rational’. The rational thing to do to prevent the economy from further contracting, as many economists have argued, is precisely the opposite: increase spending. Economies are not the same as households. The reason why this myth is so powerful is that there’s a lot of signalling power in it: Being strict on the budget allows politicians to signal that they are working hard and responsible. 

Two fascinating stories illustrate the point how wrong this myth is: 

  • Belgium suffered far less from the financial crisis than other Western-European countries. The Reason: They weren’t able to form a government for more than 1,5 year – rewarded with a Guinness World Record mention – so they didn’t have the opportunity to make stupid decisions.
  • Portugal, one of the worst economies in Europe defied the European Austerity-doctrine and started investing in wages, pensions and work. To everyone’s surprise, it quickly became one of the best-performing economies in Europe. Read this background article: “No Alternative to Austerity? That lie has now been nailed“.

Myth 3: There’s no magic money tree (spoiler: there is)

In an excellent essay on Robert Skidelsky, David Graeben shares a shocking statistic: Almost 85% of all Members of Parliament in the UK has no clue about how money is created. And yet they have to decide upon billions, even trillions of Pounds/Euros/Dollars. He writes:

 “There is no magic money tree,” as Theresa May put it during the snap election of 2017—virtually the only memorable line from one of the most lackluster campaigns in British history. The phrase has been repeated endlessly in the media, whenever someone asks why the UK is the only country in Western Europe that charges university tuition, or whether it is really necessary to have quite so many people sleeping on the streets.

The truly extraordinary thing about May’s phrase is that it isn’t true. There are plenty of magic money trees in Britain, as there are in any developed economy. They are called “banks.” Since modern money is simply credit, banks can and do create money literally out of nothing, simply by making loans. Almost all of the money circulating in Britain at the moment is bank-created in this way. Not only is the public largely unaware of this, but a recent survey by the British research group Positive Money discovered that an astounding 85 percent of members of Parliament had no idea where money really came from (most appeared to be under the impression that it was produced by the Royal Mint)”

Because nobody knows how money is created, Richard Werner, a German Economist, decided to go and find it out for himself, by applying for a job at a bank. To his disbelief, he discovered that bank tellers don’t balance out the loans and mortgages they issue against a reserve. They simply create the money out of thin air and expect it to be paid back with interest.

What happens when accountants rule the country

So, if banks can create money out of thin air, purely based on the confidence that it will return one day with interest, why couldn’t governments do this? It’s called investing. The big crisis of today is a crisis of imagination. Governments have come to think of themselves only in terms of accountants, or as the instance that only takes money and prosperity away instead of creating it. 

It reminds me of my own experience with accountants years ago. Our accountants always used to be very proud and satisfied when they looked at the quarterly numbers. In the mind of the accountant, a great company is a company that performs well on a balance sheet. I hated these conversations. I still do. Because what accountants don’t see is that an excellent looking balance-sheet can mask all kinds of deep problems: terrible clients, 80-hours work weeks, a significant dependency on junior staff, unhealthy competition, etc.

An accountant could be looking at a company that is terminally ill, and still think it’s doing great. And since they talk numbers and spreadsheets, I tended to think they knew what they’re talking about. You don’t need much imagination that the same thing is going on on a government level. Dutch politicians recently lamented that they are performing well, and yet people keep being dissatisfied and disappointed. Voters are such ungrateful bastards. 🙂

Tom De Bruyne, February 2020.

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Make Liberalism Horny Again

By | All

Dear reader,

In this newsletter, I often talk about the virtues of prototyping. As I argued many times before, I think ‘doing’ is a much faster way to make process than abstract strategizing. If you start making things, you will get to learn incredibly fast what you need to do to improve your product. You will also learn very fast if people emotionally connect with the idea.

Prototyping is the fastest route to learning if an idea is viable and likeable.

Society as a wicked design challenge

A couple of weeks ago, I had the opportunity to experience the power of prototyping firsthand. Together with Mark Thiessen and Tim Versnel, two friends I met while working for the Dutch Liberal Party VVD, we decided to record our conversations and learn if they might be worth podcasting. All three of us are intrigued by the wicked design problem of how to design the ultimate liberal society. We define the liberal utopia as a society that fosters the highest amount of freedom, opportunities, prosperity and wellbeing for as many people as possible. We firmly believe that societies where there is plenty of opportunities to learn, to grow and to fail, no matter how wealthy your parents are, are worth fighting for.

(Continue reading below)

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We like to think of this liberal utopia as a behavioural design challenge. If you want to create this society, you will need to think hard about how to influence the behaviour of every stakeholder: citizens, corporations, entrepreneurs and politicians.

This liberal utopia is the big hairy audacious goal that connects all of our conversations, whether we discuss governance, populism, climate crisis, innovation or policies.

Make Liberalism Horny Again

After we recorded our first conversation, we were not embarrased with the outcome, so we decided to continue to give it a couple of attempts. The next day Tim got a call from the editors from Nieuwsuur, a prime time political TV-show in the Netherlands because they heard about our prototyping through the grapevine. Five days later a camera crew showed up to record our second episode.

I was in a bit of cheerful mood, so when they asked me what the goal of the podcast was, I blurted out “We want to make liberalism horny again”. One week later, the editors used this quote for the headline of the item. What I didn’t realize at the time of the recording was that the narrative that they wanted to create was a narrative of a new “young” generation that wants to re-shape the Dutch Liberal Party. It was only a matter of hours after the TV item aired, that we got overwhelmed with messages from people within and outside the party. We even heard that “horny liberalism” actually made it to the VVD- party executive meeting. 🙂

The Power of Prototyping

What amuses me the most is that we hadn’t even published our first episode and the podcast already became a phenomenon. We neither had proper recording gear, so the sound quality was utterly embarrassing. We also had no idea how we wanted to talk, as you will notice if you can get beyond the first 10 minutes. However, through prototyping, we quickly learned that the idea had leverage. We even discovered that there was a big appetite for this content amongst people who want liberalism to flourish, and that includes people from the competing Dutch Liberal party D66. We would never have discovered this if we had waited till we got it just right. Even worse, I think we probably wouldn’t have succeeded in eventually publishing our first episode.

I think it was Stanford Professor Steve Blank, an authority on startups, who once famously said: “If you’re not embarrassed by your first release, you probably released too late”.

The interview that was used as teaser (Dutch).

Our website “De nieuwe vrije eeuw” + link to the podcast (Dutch)

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The Behavioural Design Blog – overview

By | All

With this Behavioural Design Overview we want to help you to navigate through the Behavioural Design Blog. Our ambition with this blog is to explore how influence works by applying it to interesting real world problems. Most of these blogs appeared in  Behahavioural Design Digest, our weekly newsletter. You can subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page.

Everything we write is in line with SUE’s mission “to unlock the potential of behavioural psychology to nudge people into positive choices about work, life and play“. This is the guiding principle behind our Behavioural Design Method we teach in our Behavioural Design Academy and that we apply in our Behavioural Design Sprints.

You can read more about our mission on the “about SUE”-page.

Essential Reads and Videos

There are blogposts that are essential to our thinking on how to influence minds and shape behaviour.

Key Behavioural Design Concepts explained

Citizen Behaviour

In this series we apply behavioural design thinking on how societies shape the behaviour of citizen

Employee Behaviour / Organisational Design

Behavioural Design for teams, organisations and professionals

Personal Development / Self-Improvement

A series on blogposts on how to apply behavioural design thinking to design a better life. ]

Customer Behaviour

Thoughts on how to use behavioural design to shape customer behaviour

Society, Government and Politics

We like to think of a society as a behavioural design that shapes predictably irrational behaviour of its constituents


We dedicated a couple of posts on the methodological part of behavioural design

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

By | All, Citizen Behaviour, Government & Politics

I just finished reading “Midnight in Chernobyl“. A chilling and magnificent book on the world’s greatest nuclear disaster. But as much as it is a book about Chernobyl, it’s above all a book on behavioural design. The book provides a fascinating peek into how totalitarian regimes like the Soviet Union profoundly shape the behaviour of its constituents.

The leadership of the Soviet Union created a magnificent illusion that the ultimate workers’ paradise of True Communism was on the horizon if everyone stuck with the plans of the Party. The best way to understand the behaviour of the people inside the Party is to look at it through the lens of a sadistic game. The higher you got in the ranks, the more effort you had to put in defending your position. Inversely, the most dreadful thing that could happen to you is to fall out of the Party’s grace.

The disastrous behaviour that triggered Chernobyl

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It’s, therefore, no surprise that the Communist Game Design produced only ruthless and sociopathic men who made it to the top. It also created a culture of lies, secrecy, and false reporting for the simple reason that no one in the communist hierarchy wanted – or could afford – to hear bad news.

Why they didn’t want to hear bad news had to do with the two obsessions of the former Soviet Union: ludicrous targets and the competition with the West. Goals that were not going to be met, triggered fury and outrage at the top, and creative corner-cutting at the bottom of the pyramid. The Soviet Union leadership always had to prove that they were able to pull off the impossible. They had to do this to maintain the illusion that it was far more capable than those bloody western capitalists. Not being able to meet the impossible was the equivalent of treason.

Being loyal beats being right

In a culture like this, rational decision-making becomes impossible. Every fact will be interpreted through this obsessive lens: “Could this fact hurt my reputation”? or “Could the Party lose face if this fact were true”? You don’t want this decision-making process when you’re building a nuclear reactor, operating one, or when you’re trying to contain it after the explosion. Reactors got built with lousy material, and prototype tests were skipped, because deadlines were sacred. Known critical errors in the design of the reactor were discarded (because it could hurt the reputation of the Soviet nuclear community), safety protocols were overruled, because deadlines had to be met,… And at every stage there always was a bullying chief who made sure people didn’t step up.

Adam Higginbotham writes:

“The accident and the government’s inability to protect the population from its consequences finally shattered the illusion that the USSR was a global superpower armed with technology that led the world. And, as the state’s attempts to conceal the truth of what had happened  came to light, even the most faithful citizens of the Soviet Union faced the realization that their leaders were corrupt and that the Communist dream was a sham”. (p. 276)

Societies shape behaviour

Midnight in Chernobyl is a fascinating story of how behaviour of a whole nation is shaped by the invisible rules of the game. Everyone is trapped inside the rules of this game, not in the least those at the top.

When you approach it from this angle, then the book pairs surprisingly well with Life.Inc. In this book, Douglas Rushkoff argues that we in the West have entirely internalized corporate thinking. We’ve become obsessed with success, we have started to see everything as assets, and we divide the world into winners and losers.

If you need to bring two books with you on holiday that will teach you a lot without being boring business books, then these are the ones.

Update February 17th 2020:

It’s also quite interesting to observe that a similar pattern is taking place in China in the context of the Corona virus outbreak.. The Chines Government is trying to contain the virus, but are now experiencing unpleasant surprises, due to  overly optimistic reporting from the local governments. People just didn’t want to report bad news, because it could hamper their changes for making career. This is a perfect illustration of Goodhart’s Law:

“When a measure becomes a target, it ceases to be a good measure.”

In other words: When your promotion depends on the things you measure, you start cooking the numbers.

Want to read more?

More blogposts on the design of citizen behaviour.

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Prototyping happiness

By | All, Health & Fitness, Self Improvement

If I asked you to think about the secret of life, love and happiness, the answer you’d probably least expect would be… prototyping. And yet, I want to argue why prototyping is the open gate to living a happier life. Psychologist Todd Kashdan claims that the number one driver for living a happy life is the pursuit of curiosity. Curious people experience new things, meet new people, experience success, develop new skills, get surprised, etc.

Fear of failure kills curiosity

However, when it comes to the pursuit of curiosity, fear of failure is the big elephant in the room. Our daily life, as well as our professional life,  is filled with a near panic fear for failure: Fear of embarrassment, fear of being held accountable, fear of being confronted with our limitations, the fear of imposter syndrome, etc. The sole purpose of most meetings is to cover the risk of taking risky new decisions.

My co-founder and wife Astrid have a simple mantra to break this pattern. It’s called prototyping. Our default answer to exciting new ideas is: “Great idea, let’s prototype it”. Prototyping comes down to experimenting with a minimal version of something, to figure out what works and what doesn’t work. You can apply this to startups, marketing, but also to your professional and personal life.

Eric Ries argues in the Lean Startup that we shouldn’t think of startups as mini-enterprises, but rather as learning projects. A startup is an experimentation lab in which the founders need to figure out how to generate paying customers before the money runs out. They do this through frantic tweaking with the product, service, proposition, marketing and communication.

The biggest threat to startups is the “reality distortion field” of the founders: the ability to convince themselves and their stakeholders that they have a killer product. But too often, they only discovered too late they were building a solution in the search for a problem.

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Prototyping everything

The cool thing about prototyping is that you can never fail. You can only learn. That’s why Astrid and I prototype everything in our life: From working at home to working where it’s summertime. From the creation of a presentation deck to the development of a new training programme for the Behavioural Design Academy. From running half a marathon to living plant-based and going for zero-emission. We slice the problem into its smallest components, try out a minimally viable version and try to figure out what we could learn. Failure is not an option because every outcome of the experiment is exciting and can help us to make better decisions.

There are only two psychological barriers that cripple innovation: the fear of failure and the ego desire to be seen as an expert. They both block curiosity and hence the road to mystery, excitement, discovery and a little wiiiiii when you discover that something works.

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Thoughts on psychological innovation and the badass honeybadger

By | Behavioural Science

I had the honour to do the opening keynote at the UBX19 conference in Munich a couple of weeks ago. The title of the keynote was “The future of innovation is psychological, not technological“.

In this talk, I wanted to make a case for a more pragmatic definition of innovation. In my view, innovation is nothing more or less than trying out new shit to generate growth. And when you approach the innovation challenge from this angle, it’s evident to me that we’re too obsessed with technology to look for new ideas. In my keynote, I argue that there’s massive untapped potential for “trying out new shit” when you look into psychology.

Here’s the video (30 minutes)

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The honey badger is pretty badass.

A couple of years ago, Robin Sloan launched “Fish, a tap essay“. The essay is a manifesto about the difference between liking something and loving something on the internet. The core idea of the piece is that reading or watching something twice is a radical act of love. There’s so much new content that tries to grab our attention, that we tend to forget that mastery and appreciation only start to emerge from second or third readings. This is a powerful idea that influenced me a lot.

Speaking of which, I honestly think that there hasn’t been a year gone by without me re-sharing the honey badger video through social media. In my opinion, it’s – hands down – the funniest thing ever on Youtube. A guy named Randall who does a hilarious voice-over of a documentary-fragment on the honey badger, the most fearless animal in the animal kingdom.

I find great pleasure in the surprising effect of mixing two completely different genres: When you put the gay hairdresser-chitchat style on top of the nature-documentary genre, the result is, well, this:

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Why this AI influencer is freaking me out, and so it should you

By | All, Customer Behaviour

So fake, it feels real

“How many people in the room think AI will eventually replace the comms professional?”, asked a speaker at the Adformatie conference this week. About 1 in 300 believed this could happen. Then she presented Lilmiquela. A famous social media influencer with over 1,6 million followers. The only detail is: Lilmiquela is not real. She is an AI that feeds itself with how real social media influencers talk on social media, she mimics the words, topics, tone, dilemma’s, and stories and quickly discovers what gains traction and what not.

She looks uncanny real. Not only in how the CGI resembles a real girl, but also in how she has real emotions, real girl problems, real thoughts about life and boys, real consumption preference, and real mood swings. Everything you would expect from your social media influencer.

What’s even more bizarre: people know she’s not real. Her makers don’t hide that she’s computer-generated. And yet, people connect with the fake persona, with the fake emotions, the fake heart-brokenness, the fake little shout-outs to the fans, the phoney consumption preference, etc. The manipulation is pretty disturbing, as you can see in the video “A weird man touched me (and I almost died)” below.

But she’s nothing more than a business model.

She’s designed to generate eyeballs for brands.

And the AI knows how to connect with our deepest fears and desires, meanwhile hooking you to the story and feeding you with brands and consumption advice….

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You might argue that playing to our unconscious emotions is as old as advertising. And you’re right. The only detail is: Advertising was always recognized as advertising. You knew that there was a sender who used a medium to build desirable associations around the product.

Propaganda was already a bit more tricky. The sender is trying to disguise that the stories they create about the world and about what is threatening us, are a cynical attempt to hijack our brains to gain power.

Propaganda 2.0

But this is propaganda 2.0: There’s no clear sender, There’s a smart computer who figured out how to exploit your attention and your emotion with the sole purpose to sell you a lifestyle. It doesn’t tell you: we’re trying to sell ou a dream. Instead, it says: I want to be your best friend! Let’s connect and talk to me.

I have always been fascinated by technological progress. But there was a  point in time a couple of years ago where it became evident to me that technology has its own will. And, although it keeps insisting on the exact opposite, its intention is not to serve us. Instead, its will is to shape our thoughts, emotions and behaviour for commercial or governmental control.

The future is already here

Lilmiquela should freak us all out. She is the evidence of how advanced behavioural engineering has become in only a few years. Shoshana Zuboff argues in her epic book on “surveillance capitalism” that a couple of years ago, we were the product Facebook and Google sold to advertisers. But now we have become the ground material for the algorithms. Through the free products we so happily use, they build such a massive amount of behavioural data that, once fed into AI, we – humanity – will effectively become what the comedian Bill Hicks once called “a virus with shoes”.

It’s not because your not paranoid, that it doesn’t mean they’re not after you.

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How one buddha statue transformed a community

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

This story began in 2009. Dan Stevenson, a resident of Oakland’s Eastlake Neighborhood, was fed up with people littering garbage in a traffic-diverting median at the intersection of two streets. He was used to drug dealing and prostitution in the neighbourhood, but as long as they didn’t cross a line, he didn’t feel the urge to act.

But the new median in the road turned out to become an open invitation for people to dump their garbage. And the moment one item got dropped, it signalled social proof to other people to follow the example, and this triggered more undesired behaviour.

Dan Stevenson came up with an idea: “What if I would put up a Buddha Statue?” He figured: Buddha is pretty neutral. A Jesus Christ statue is too controversial. But with Buddha, you can’t be offended. His idea was that the gaze of the Buddha might have a second-thought effect on criminals and litters.

What happened next, according to the The San Fransisco Gate is the following:

“He hoped that just maybe his small gesture would bring tranquillity to a neighborhood marred by crime: dumping, graffiti, drug dealing, prostitution, robberies, aggravated assault and burglaries.

What happened next was nothing short of stunning. Area residents began to leave offerings at the base of the Buddha: flowers, food, candles. A group of Vietnamese women in prayer robes began to gather at the statue to pray.And the neighborhood changed. People stopped dumping garbage. They stopped vandalizing walls with graffiti. And the drug dealers stopped using that area to deal. The prostitutes went away.

I asked police to check their crime statistics for the block radius around the statue, and here’s what they found: Since 2012, when worshipers began showing up for daily prayers, overall year-to-date crime has dropped by 82 percent. Robbery reports went from 14 to three, aggravated assaults from five to zero, burglaries from eight to four, narcotics from three to none, and prostitution from three to none”.

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Hostile Design 

The makers of the 99%invisble-podcast, where I heard the story, framed this intervention as an example of hostile design. Design that aims at deterring bad behaviours. A bit like the paint in Hamburg’s party district that bounces off your pee when people urinate against it. Similar to the park benches that were designed in such a way that homeless people cannot use them as a bed.

I wouldn’t exactly call this intervention hostile. What I really like about this intervention is that one single attribute redefined the perception of the physical space from a trash bin to a sacred place. And once it was redefined through this statue, it started to shape people’s behaviour. It quickly became a holy shrine for the Buddhist community. And they began to take care of the place. Once they figured out that Dan Stevenson was behind it, the Vietnamese community started to bring him presents and paying him their respects.

What I also love about this story is that it’s such a powerful example of how little our brain needs to alter the experience of what we see. We don’t need many cues for our mind to attribute a completely different meaning to what we see. One Buddha statue from a home depot store sufficed to transform the perception, the experience and the meaning of place. And it redefined the behaviours that were expected and those that were forbidden.

As Charles and Ray Eams once summarized one of the essential lessons in design: The design is not in the details. The detail is the design.

Psychological magic is everywhere.
We have to learn to see it.

You can hear the whole story on the 99% invisible podcast

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Pissing in the well

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

Have you ever been to Ubud in Bali? Ten years ago it was the closest you could get to paradise. Today it transformed into a mass tourism nightmare. KFC’s next to McDonalds, an abundance of yoga studios and a plethora of overpriced organic restaurants, carefully catered to get the last dollar out of the pockets of the sophisticated soul searcher.

Vang Vieng in Laos is even worse. Once a little hidden gem on a river transformed itself into a binge-drinking paradise for English and Australian youngsters. The number one activity in Vang Vieng is tubing, which comes down to descending the river on a tube while being drunk. The view that made Vang Vieng so incredibly beautiful is now gone because they built backpacker huts in front of it.

These are just two classic examples of the concept of “pissing in the well“. A well is a common good in a community that – if managed well – provides prosperity for everyone. If a community in a remote village manages its access to water well, everyone will be able to thrive. If one person decides to damage it for personal gain, the well will dry up and everyone will suffer or die. This phenomenon is also often referred to as the tragedy of the commons.

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We’re pissing in every well we find

The wrongness of the core idea of capitalism that progress is made when everyone pursues their self-interest is never better illustrated than in the tragedy of the commons. The list of tragedies is endless:

  • We live in Amsterdam. It’s a beautiful city, but real estate speculation and mass tourism are gradually turning it into Disney-like attraction.
  • Watching a Frozen-movie with the kids on TV can be a joyful family experience until they ruin it with five advertising blocks.
  • We want to drive our cars as fast as we want to while musing about the beauty of the countryside. But while doing this, the quality of what’s left of nature is rapidly declining, precisely because we’re slowly suffocating it.

I can go on and on. We, humans, tend to piss in every well of beauty and prosperity we find.

I don’t know the solution to the problem, but I do know that the psychology of happiness points to some exciting directions. The key to living a happy life is not about consuming the things you want to have or to buy experiences. Life long happiness is all about living a meaningful life. It’s about forming deep relationships with others, through which your sense of self transcends. Happiness is about learning new things. And it’s about contributing to a more significant good.

Find happiness in restoring the wells in 2020

So instead of pissing in the wells we visit, why not dedicate ourselves to joining forces to restore the wells that we are in the process of destroying:

  • bring back the sense of belonging in the communities we live
  • restore the wildlife in our regions
  • join forces to speed up the transition to a carbon-free world
  • restore the opportunities for kids who grow in poverty to get access to good education, proper role models and enough opportunities to climb the social ladder

These are the wicked behavioural design challenges for 2020 we are going to focus on. To restore the wells of beauty, meaning and prosperity, what a great mission for the next years.

pissing in the well behavioural design

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A cunning plan to nudge people into electric driving

By | All, Citizen Behaviour

The climate change issue is by far the most wicked behavioural design challenge in our lifetime. In about 10-20 years we will need humanity to change the fossil fuel motorblock under the hood of prosperity. And we will need to do this while we’re all high on consuming everything our carefully manipulated desires are told to want. This is the daunting taks for our generation.

There’s going to be a big need for behavioural designers to answer questions like: How are we going to get people, business and politicians to change their behaviour?

Let’s zoom in on cars to begin with: How do you get people to switch to driving electric? It’s actually much simpler than you think.

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There’s a big debate going on in the Netherlands right now. The Dutch government was forced to come up with measures to lower the level of CO2 emissions urgently. They came up with the idea to reduce the maximum speed on all highways from 130 till 100 km/hour. The argument seemed more than fair: It’s a relatively small effort, and it saves thousands of jobs in construction. You can read more about it in this article from The Guardian.

The country went bonkers, and the resentment was both fueled and harvested by the far-right populist parties. People don’t want to be told how fast they can drive. The topic is consistently being framed as a complot from the urban elite against the hardworking people.

At the same time, the government decided to stop giving tax incentives for buying electric cars. By the way: it was also brilliantly framed by the opposition as the Tesla-tax. A tax-cut that would only benefit people who are rich enough to buy a Tesla.

What if they would have approached both problems as behavioural designers?

As is all too often the case, the measures were taken with a lousy understanding of human decision making in mind. You don’t have to be a behavioural scientist to understand that taking away a privilege will backfire, no matter how good the intentions. Bas Erlings and Sophie Hermans, the campaigning masterminds behind the Dutch Liberals did a masterful job in framing the issue. They immediately framed it as a “lousy measure they only made to prevent thousands of people working in the construction business would sit at home at the Christmas table without a job”. The “lousy measure”-frame was repeated in national and international media.

But with a little bit of creativity, this could have been a fantastic opportunity to boost the transition to electric driving. The only thing they needed to do, was to allow electric cars to drive 130 in the fast lane. Every time you would see an electric car passing you on the highway, you would essentially see a riding billboard for electric driving. If you combined this with free parking and free chargers in the city-centres, where parking space costs a fortune and are challenging to find, that would spark a rush on electric cars.

However, this requires policymakers to think human-centered instead of looking at the problem through the traditional rational frame. You don’t need to incentivise humans if you can tap into psychological value: The desire to outsmart traffic, to have comfortable parking space and even the desire to be part of a smart group of people who outsmarted the masses by going electric.

But the problem, of course, is that these measures are just a little bit too exotic to say yes to if you are a policymaker. And therefore it’s a lost opportunity. As I argued many times before in this newsletter: policymakers should at least hire behavioural economists or behavioural designers to spot golden opportunities for behavioural change.

Read more about this topic in a blog post I wrote a couple of months ago: How Norway nudges its citizen to drive electric.

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