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Britain’s Ministry of Nudges

Economics, Policy, Psychology, employment, nudge, principles, tax

Alex Gyani had an idea, but even he considered it a little far-fetched.

A 24-year-old psychologist working for the British government, Mr. Gyani was supposed to come up with new ways to help people find work. He was intrigued by an obscure 1994 study that tracked a group of unemployed engineers in Texas. One group of engineers, who wrote about how it felt to lose their jobs, were twice as likely to find work as the ones who didn’t. Mr. Gyani took the study to a job center in Essex, northeast of London, where he was assigned for several months. Sure, it seemed crazy, but would it hurt to give it a shot? Hayley Carney, one of the center’s managers, was willing to try.

Ms. Carney walked up to a man slumped in a plastic chair in the waiting area as Mr. Gyani watched from across the room. The man — 28, recently separated and unemployed for most of his adult life — was “our most difficult case,” Ms. Carney said later.

“How would you like to write about your feelings” about being out of a job? she asked the man. Write for 20 minutes. Once a week. Whatever pops into your head.

An awkward silence followed. Maybe this was a bad idea, Mr. Gyani remembers thinking.

But then the man shrugged. Why not? And so, every week, after seeing a job adviser, he would stay and write. He wrote about applying for dozens of jobs and rarely hearing back, about not having anything to get up for in the morning, about his wife who had left him. He would reread what he had written the week before, and then write again.

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