The dinner party kit: a bluffer’s guide to behavioural economics

Posted by | · · · · · | The Hunter Blog | 5 Comments

Now that Cameron and Obama are talking about behavioural economics you need an opinion on it. And one that’s better than ‘I read a bit of.. ermmm, that book, Nudge, yeah’. So here’s your dinner party cheat-sheet for behavioural economics. It’s short and memorable, just like a good whisky (from Scotland. Or whiskey, from any other country, if you’re that way inclined).


Start with a quote. Either of these will do – they’re broadly the same. I offer two so you don’t bore yourself.



“Just as no building lacks an architecture, so no choice lacks a context”

That’s from Nudge, if you’re feeling all Saturday night ITV. (And it’s on pg 236, if you’re counting.). Or



“…despite being generally capable and smart, we are highly context dependent.”

This is by Jack Fuller from an Australian research group called Per Capita Research. A much less well known source, if you want to be all Wednesday night BBC4 (just after Das Boot and before Puccini’s La Boheme (without subtitles)).


Once you’ve established the common ground you introduce the three biggies. Three is good – any more and it feels like High School, any less and it feels like Playschool. There are more than three, but don’t go there – you’ll kill the ‘party’ bit of dinner party.

  1. - Framing
  2. - Loss aversion
  3. - Social norms


Done. You can leave it here, but I bet you’ll want to add an example or two. So we wrote you some. Pick the short version or the long version, or mix and match.



1. Framing


The short version: Imagine a monastery. A young monk asks, ‘Can I smoke while I’m praying?’ which gets a big fat no in reply. Later he re-frames the question ‘Can I pray when I’m smoking?’… he’s told he can pray whenever he likes.


The long version: The medium sized coffee is the most popular in coffee shops. If we were rational actors in a rational world driven by an internal engine that commanded our desires, we’d calculate our need and ask for a coffee size similar: perhaps ‘330ml – the volume of a fizzy drinks can’, or ‘those screw=top bottles, half a litter I think?’, or perhaps ‘the approximate volume of my mug at home’. We don’t. We aren’t. It’s not. The frame.



2. Loss aversion


The short version: The pain of loss twice as bad as the pleasure of gain of equal size.


The long version: It doesn’t have to be loss of money – it can be loss of reputation. The Yale Environmental Sustainability Index is a country-by-country relative measurement. One year Norway came second. The prime minister – rather than crowing about Norway’s success – wanted to overtake Finland to become number one. Loss. Aversion.



3. Social norms


The short version: Social norm is about not being a weirdo.


The long version: When towel reuse signs in a hotel mentioned that ‘three quarters of guests who stayed in this room reused their towels’ 50% of guests did the same. Only 30% reused towels when told it would ‘help save the environment’. That simple word change alone would save 7 trillion gallons of water if every hotel on the planet did this.


Then you follow this with that joke about ex US President George Bush who squealed ‘how many!?!’ when one of his aides told him ‘3 Brazilian soldiers’ were killed in Afghanistan…

And there you are, seamlessly back in the conversation, looking more knowledgeable and witty. Glad we could help.

• Oliver is author of the behavioural communication book Inspiring Sustainable Behaviour: 19 Ways To Ask For Change published by Routledge, available in most countries.
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network London Meetup group for notifications
• Join the London Behavioural Economics Network on Facebook



Download this page as a pdf.


5 Comments

TheHunterBlog says:

March 25, 2010 at 3:32 pm

Via twitter: "good stuff!" @tomstannard ,"this is very good" @danielratchford

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kim g says:

May 24, 2011 at 6:24 pm

hey great post i loved that first one sometimes its all about the way you phrase your word huh

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AdHack Blog – How to Influence Human Behaviour: Presentations and a Video says:

June 23, 2011 at 10:43 pm

[…] you need the Behavioural Economics Cheat Sheet from The Hunting Dynasty — a handy reference guide to remember the lessons of influence and […]

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cheat engine says:

February 13, 2017 at 1:28 pm

nice post keep it up and thanks for shring

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check it says:

March 31, 2017 at 10:16 am

Where does one get ideas for their various writing projects when the dreaded writers' block hits? A 'Cheat Sheet' could help you through this often frustrating time…

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