Big Brother as helper, trying to predict our patterns of boarding, moving carry-on bags, lounge seating habits, and even how to control smokers.

WSJ: Pelle Guldborg Hansen, a behavioral scientist, is trying to figure out how to board passengers on a plane with less fuss.

The goal is to make plane-boarding more efficient by coaxing passengers to want to be more orderly, not by telling them they must. It is one of many projects in which Dr. Hansen seeks to encourage people, when faced with options, to make better choices. Among these: prompting people to properly dispose of cigarette butts outside of bars and clubs and inducing hospital workers to use hand sanitizers.

Dr. Hansen, 37 years old, is director of the Initiative for Science, Society & Policy, a collaboration of the University of Southern Denmark and Roskilde University. The concept behind his work is known commonly as a nudge, dubbed such because of the popular 2008 book of the same name by U.S. academics Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein that examined how people make decisions.

When people are uncertain about the (boarding) process, they tend to follow each other, and that can lead to a large group of people clogging up the boarding, Dr. Hansen says.

Dr. Hansen, whose Ph.D. work focused on theoretical modeling of social dynamics, says he has always spotted problems in everyday life and tried to fix them. One hurdle was getting his 10-year-old son to brush his teeth twice a day. On a recent family vacation, he says he asked his son what he saw when going out of the house. His son said he saw the telephone. Dr. Hansen encouraged his son to think about whether he had brushed his teeth whenever he saw the phone. At first there was a delay but gradually he remembered, says Dr. Hansen.

“I did a lot of programming of [my son’s] behaviors” during vacation, says Dr. Hansen.


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