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Behavioural Scientist Nicola Wass: “Never Stop Reinventing Yourself”

4 min read

She is blond, bold and speaks her mind. The new Director of The Baltic Triangle CIC in Liverpool and CEO of So-Mo Ltd Nicola Wass, who has pioneered the application of behavioural insight and design thinking to the delivery of behaviour change campaigns across the UK, has revealed to CrunchyTales how Nudge Theory could also reshape people’s thoughts about middle age. For her: “if instead of portraying middle age as negative and everywhere we look we see images of middle-aged people (who we can relate to) looking well, happy, creative and successful then we reset our internal and external views”.

Nicola, how would social campaigns that combat ageism get benefit by learning from behavioural sciences?

Expectation and reality – so often at odds. When campaigns make assumptions they often get it wrong. By understanding what is really going on in the mind of a person or section of society you want to influence, and then creating a campaign that uses that knowledge in a tailored way, are able to operate at a whole different level. Behavioural scientists will also rigorously test messages and campaigns prior to release – so if you work with a behavioural science-based agency rather than an advertising agency you can be certain that whatever you eventually roll out will already have demonstrated impact where you need it.

In particular, what does exactly your company do?

Most people I speak to don’t want to be unhealthy obese, poor in their old age or be in a crash because they answered a call whilst driving – but what we know to be right and desirable and what we do in reality can sometimes be polar opposite. At So-Mo we try to understand what is getting in the way of a good decision or action and then we create simple nudges to help people reduce or remove the obstacle that is stopping them from doing something they would consider to be a better choice for themselves and society. More often than not the obstacle is personal, for example being stuck in a habit, lacking self-will or procrastinating to the point of inactivity. Our clients are predominately in the public sector but we are keen to work with more provide sector companies who want to influence s people’s choices and behaviours in ways which benefit both the individual and the company.

What shouldn’t be missed in a social campaign that aims to build a more age-inclusive society?

Understanding who you want to influence, how they think, talk, act, and why they hold the views that they do. What biases are they relying on that are giving them a flawed mental model and what devices in behavioural science a likely to adjust and correct that. Sometimes this can be as simple as changing the environment or order in which choices are presented.

According to the Nudge theory, an idea grounded in behavioural science, positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions can influence people’s decisions and actions, without them even realising. Could this also be an effective way to reshape people’s thoughts about middle age?

Emotions such as anger, empathy, guilt and shame not only influence the behaviour of those who experience them but also of those who interact with them. If society views middle age in a negative way and this is reflected as a negative social stereotype then people who are middle-aged are more likely to internalise this view and feel bad about themselves. But this works both ways. If instead of portraying middle age as negative and everywhere we look we see images of middle-aged people (who we can relate to) looking well, happy, creative and successful then we reset our internal and external views. Conversely, that doesn’t count for celebrities or film stars – we read them as ‘other’ and unattainable so we don’t tend to relate in the same way. That’s why magazines like this are important.

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Not only is ageism a real problem, but it’s on the rise and it seems that women experience it the most. In your opinion, how can we achieve positive changes in the way we think, feel and act towards age and ageing. Would you suggest any key actions?

I hate the way women in the media – particularly television feel side-lined once they get out of their 30s. Removing older women from the public eye or moving them into less important roles is damaging for society and inexcusable. Women of all ages buy clothes, food, go on holiday, vote in elections. I want to see what clothes look on someone my age and shape. I can’t be bothered sending stuff back because what looked great on a 20-year-old model doesn’t look as fab on a 46-year-old me. There are some amazing social media influencers in their 40’s and 50’s. My favourite is a French influencer called Sophie Fontanel her posts are stylish, humorous and very chic.

In your opinion, why does ageism ‘never get old’?

Because humans are flawed, they are biased and they are tribal. The ‘in-group’ overestimates their own importance and will dehumanise and generalise about the ‘out-group’ whether that is middle-aged women, people of a different race or cultural outsiders.

When people think of mid-life, the word ‘crisis’ comes to mind. Is that a myth? From your experience, what have you found?

‘Crisis’ is such a negative word – it implies that you have little control over your circumstances. It is defined as a time of intense difficulty or danger. My theory is that, if you have kids in your twenties or early thirties, (or don’t have kids but have thrown yourself into your career) there has been very little time to take stock. You were in survival mode going from one thing to the next in quick succession. There is a point at middle age where, if you are fortunate and your parents are still going strong, no one needs you in quite the same way.  You suddenly have time to take stock. You are also far more aware of your own mortality because the people who were middle-aged when you were a child are now older and frailer. For some, this may feel like a crisis, for others a time to review what having a good life means to you. I don’t think you should ever stop reinventing yourself. Follow new and untraveled paths – say goodbye to people who have taken far more than they have ever given and hold close the people who make you smile and you can trust. Break a few rules – upset a few apple carts and if someone wants to call that a crisis well that’s their problem.




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