Today in Security--Nudge Theory and Machine Learning for Security Managers

Today in Security: Nudge Theory Plus Machine Learning for Managers

​A consulting company called Humu (founded by former Google employees) is using an offshoot of behavioral economics, nudge theory, to improve management practices by sending well-timed message​s to managers, according to a recent article in The New York Times.

Take, for example, a company where employees feel that the way decisions are made is too opaque. Humu might nudge a manager before a meeting by sending a message reminding the manager to ask the members of the team for input, and to be open-minded enough to allow the input to change his or her mind.

The technique is cutting-edge in another way. Humu will use machine learning, or the application of artificial intelligence, to tailor the timing, content, and techniques of the messages, based on how employees respond. ​

In a previous issue of Security Management, Sean Benson, CPP, wrote about how behavioral economics applies to security programs. Behavioral economics is the scientific examination of why people and organizations make the decisions they do, in an economic context. Public awareness of behavioral economics gained ground with the development of "nudge theory," an offshoot of the science, developed by academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein.

The two scholars postulate that there are both subtle and blatant clues everywhere that influence behavior. People often make decisions because of what is easier, rather than what is in their best interest. Given that, these clues can be intentionally used to "nudge" people toward doing the right thing. A well-timed nudge can prompt better choices.

Here's one example of how nudge theory can be used in the security field. This finding also has applications in security.

Several years ago, officials in a Nepalese airport noticed a marked increase in graft among airport customs inspectors. These instances often involved Nepalese who sought employment outside of the country to support family members. When these expatriates returned to Nepal, crooked customs inspectors preyed upon them by insisting on bribes in exchange for quick facilitation through customs.

Nepalese anticorruption authorities fought back by redesigning the uniforms of airport customs workers so that all pockets were removed. Collecting bribes became much more complicated without a convenient pocket to quickly stash the loot. And the pocketless uniforms served as a clue that the workers should not be accepting bribes—​they nudged the employees in the right behavioral direction.