Sunday, 8 July 2018

Auckland Airport passport control's accidental nudge fail

I just got back from Europe, where I was attending the EduLearn 2018 conference. On arriving back at Auckland Airport, we were confronted as usual with rows of SmartGate (or eGate) machines, which scan your e-passport and take a photo of you, rather than having to have your passport physically checked by an officer. These SmartGates at Auckland Airport are now usable by many different passport holders (which caused me some disquiet when we arrived in London to find that we couldn't use the same facilities there and yet UK citizens can do so in New Zealand - whatever happened to reciprocity?). Anyway, I digress.

Nudge theory was brought to prominence by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's excellent 2008 book Nudge. The idea is that relatively subtle changes to the decision environment can have significant effects on behaviour. If I remember correctly, one of their examples was the difference between opt-in and opt-out retirement savings schemes, where opt-out schemes have much higher enrolment rates compared with otherwise-identical opt-in schemes. One of the most important insights of behavioural economics and nudge theory is the idea that how a decision is framed can make a difference to our decisions. Governments are making increasing use of nudges to modify our behaviour, including the Behavioural Insights Team in the UK, and similar efforts in the U.S. and Australia.

Not all nudges are intentional or helpful though, as we discovered at Auckland Airport passport control. Above the SmartGate machines was a helpful row of the flags representing all the nations whose passport holders could use SmartGate. However, these flags were lined up in groups of three or four (or two, in the case of Australia and New Zealand), with each group of flags located above a corresponding group of SmartGate machines (I'm really sad I can't share a photo, because of laws prohibiting photography in this area, so you'll have to make do with my description). Unsurprisingly, this gave a strong impression to arriving passengers that they should go to the machines corresponding to the flag of their passport. Passport control framed our decision about which machine to choose by making it seem that the flags mattered. In actuality, all SmartGate machines could handle any of the e-passports.

So, when my wife and I arrived at passport control, there was a huge line for the machines with the New Zealand and Australian flags, and virtually no lines at all for the machines with the European flags. We weren't caught out by this unintentional nudge (because we knew that all of the machines worked the same, and we were willing to buck the trend and not line up in the 'New Zealand and Australia' line), and managed to substantially jump the queue.

I wonder how long it will take for Auckland Airport (or Customs or whoever controls that area) to realise their error and correct it? I'm off to Ireland in August for another conference, so I guess I will see then.

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