Nudgestock 2021: celebrating the science of human behaviour

25,000 attended Nudgestock on Friday, Ogilvy Consulting’s festival of behavioural science and creativity.

The festival has blossomed over the years, gaining in popularity and profile. This year saw the best line-up yet, headlined by the godfather of Behavioural Science Daniel Kahneman, and supported by industry luminaries like Dan Ariely & Michael Hallsworth, alongside practitioners, academics and even a few well known names like John Cleese popping in. Why so varied? In Rory’s Sutherland’s view: 

“The best ideas do not emerge within disciplines, they emerge at the intersections between them.”

It’s a hard event to sum up because of its scope and ambition. The 12 hours included talks, discussions and workshops. The production values were impressive; Rory Sutherland, Sam Tatam and Tara Austin hosted from a TV studio at Ogilvy HQ. They were in their element, and their joie de vivre and sense of fun kept things moving along at pace.

Indeed, this trio ably represent a discipline with increasing momentum. Behavioural science is developing its evidence base as more practitioners across the world start applying its principles. And judging from the attendance many, many people are interested in the science of human behaviour.

I want to pick up on two themes from the day.



Standing back from it all, creativity feels like the golden thread. Finding counter-intuitive solutions to organisational challenges is never easy. Sometimes the pressure of budgets, timescales and expectations makes it feel nigh on impossible. 

So it’s inspiring when people embrace challenges far beyond our own. Professor David Nutt, ably assisted by Tara Austin, asked the question: 

What if we could create a substitute for alcohol with all the upside and none of the downside?

You can check out the answer here.

Rory Sutherland and John Cleese’s conversation on the theme of creativity had many highlights. Cleese described creativity as “decisiveness at the right time”. He spent years working for TV executives whom “want to know what they are getting before it has been created.” His view? Great ideas emerge from your unconscious. Play – not logic – is the way you get in touch with them. His advice was to postpone the decision until the right time, even if it makes you anxious. Go for a walk, or sleep on it. Your unconscious is unruly and you cannot control it.

I see two implications for us all. Firstly, don’t over-diarise: leave yourself some chance of inspiration. As Amos Tversky observed:

“The secret to doing good research is always to be a little underemployed. You waste years by not being able to waste hours.”

Secondly, fight for the right to explore wacky, different or counter-intuitive ideas. You never know what might capture the imagination of your audience.

The theme built through the day, as we were given a crash course in creative brainstorming a solution to a live client brief for NanoSalad. This combined rigorous process to harness the wisdom of our crowd (COM-B analysis, lateral, divergent and convergent ideation, prioritisation and instant artworking) with a side helping of fun.



As a practitioner the most valuable talk of the day came from the Behavioural Insight Team’s Michael Hallsworth. His manifesto for Behavioural Science contained 9 proposals to ensure the discipline fulfils its potential and was immediately useful.

The second struck me as the most profound. We should see the system. The world is full of people reducing problems to simple, linear solutions. As Sutherland put it in his introduction:

“Organisations often make solutions based on a model of reality, rather than the complexity of lived experience… It is easier to reduce everything into a two body problem which you can solve with a simplistic model..”

Unfortunately this leads to false precision and solutions too brittle to bloom in the wild. Complex adaptive systems involve feedback loops, many of which we are unaware of or are too difficult to model.

The lesson? It comes back to the audacity of giving your solution a go – intertwined with the humility of its evaluating its effectiveness in the real world without prejudice.   

Hallsworth also had a great deal to say about the future of the discipline. In his view we should move beyond lists of unconnected biases to higher level frameworks. He also touched on the symbiotic relationship between data and behavioural science, and the potential for increasing fairness. The evidence of which findings are reliable and how effects vary (e.g. which behavioural interventions work for whom and when) will be greatly helped by big data and predictive analytics. The emerging field of hypernudging feels relevant here. 


Are you ready for even more complexity?

We’ve not even got to Daniel Kahneman. Most famous for lifting the lid on human decision-making in his bestseller Thinking Fast and Slow and holding the Nobel Prize in Economics. Kahneman discussed his new book Noise with Sutherland. I would hate to estimate their combined I.Q.

The book examines decision-making at a group, rather than an individual level. “Noise” is when people faced with similar issues make different decisions – “unwanted variability in judgments that should ideally be identical”. The justice system provides many of the case studies in his book – as the sentencing outcomes provide an ideal data set for examination. Criminal sentencing by Judges can be viewed in 4 (!) dimensions:

Differences between judges; Inconsistent differences for individual judges e.g. dependent on their mood that day; Consistent differences for individual judges e.g. some perceive certain crimes as more serious; Normative differences at a societal level e.g. USA vs Norway.

These dimensions of noise compound: one example for cheque fraud in the 1970s showed that jail sentences varied from 30 days to 15 years.

It’s a reminder that we all see the world though a unique lens, despite the widespread assumption we see the world objectively.

The takeaway? Where there are humans, there are emotions and there will be inconsistency in decision making. Kahneman is bullish on the use of algorithms to remove bias as a result of his research. He also recommends what he calls “decision hygiene” to mitigate bias.


Too many ideas to mention

The festival of ideas was inspirational and fun in equal measure. Let’s face it, you’ve got Nobel Prize winners talking to marketers here: in the wrong hands this intellectual firepower could be intimidating. But the lightness of touch and the warmth of the contributors truly engaged the audience. Kudos to the team at Ogilvy for pulling it off.