The concept of nudging refers to a behavioral design that makes the process of decision making easier and more beneficial to the actual decision maker. The nudging theory was developed by Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Richard Thaler and has been an increasingly popular technique for public policy makers and ‘innovative’ marketers. But it’s important to keep in mind that nudging is complex in nature and can have a major impact on people’s behaviour. Such impact can be credited to utilizing and ‘playing off of’ the errors caused by human biases and cognitive shortcuts in order to influence behaviour. However, a nudge can only be considered one as long as it doesn’t restrict personal freedom and individual choice. Rather, it is an aspect of choice architecture designed to change or reframe the presentation of choice to (gently) encourage one option over another.
Since the publication of the book Nudge written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, there have been real world applications of nudges by public policy makers. Nudging has gained increasing popularity in the public sector for a number of reasons, specifically that it is an inexpensive technique and can generate actual results relatively quickly. Although, each nudge design undergoes randomized controlled trials to determine the effectiveness, such studies tend to be faster than that of normal academic study. Another imperative aspect of the introduction of nudging, is that it provides a new empirical approach for public sector decision making, in turn pushing away from intuitive and outdated approaches.
For example, in Syracuse, New York, the local government implemented a technique to nudge people who were behind on their property tax payments. Specifically, by sending them a letter with a handwritten note on the front of the envelope. Such a small change in design helped Syracuse successfully collect an additional $1.5 million back in taxes.
Handwritten note on property tax reminder letters
Furthermore, one of the most well known and creative examples of nudging took place in Schiphol Airport Amsterdam. Behavioral designers printed the image of a housefly on the inside of the urinals in the airport’s bathrooms to encourage cleanliness. In turn, this nudge reduced spillage on the bathroom floor by 80% as well as improving the ‘aim’ of the users.
Ready, Aim, Fire!
We can see from these intriguing examples of nudging in public policy, that the designs focused on changing a on a specific part of the environment and on a small scale. However, regardless of this success not all nudges are effective and there are still some behavioral scientists that have not embraced the integration of nudging in public policy. This is mainly due to a lack of robust framework, an issue that is also present within the field of behavioural science itself.
However, the UK government tasked a group of behavioural scientists and researchers to actually develop a practical framework that could be used by policymakers. This framework is known as MindSpace and was the primary framework used by the UK Behavioural Insights Team, which was the first behavioural science institution to be appointed by a government. Mindspace was created to describe automatic and contextual effects on behaviour as found in numerous laboratory experiments. Essentially, the BI team created a detailed checklist of primary influences on our behaviour to specifically inform policy making. For example, the messenger is a highly robust influence on behaviour as we are heavily influenced by who communicates the information. Another influencing factor is salience which suggests that we draw our attention to novel things and also what seems the most relevant to us. Moreover, one of the most important premises behind MindSpace, is that it is not a framework developed to help the government ‘intrude’ into the private lives of their citizens but rather to complement and improve conventional public policy tools instead of replacing them completely.
To push this discussion further, we must ask ourselves: is nudging enough? Boosting is a behavioral intervention which emphasizes the power to make your own choices and giving people all the available options to make the best decision. Both nudging and boosting have been shown to be powerful tools that could improve decision making and that they can both be integrated in order to maximize potential.
Also, there have been some behavioural science organizations that questioned the authenticity of nudging as well as its effectiveness for social change. Some figures view nudging as a ‘quick and one-time fix’ that does not actually target the inherent issues of the functionings of governmental institutions or social programs. Therefore, public policy makers and savvy marketers must come to understand that nudges should not be considered a default option for inducing behavioural changes. Finally, nudging is a very new behavioural concept! It will continue to grow in the behavioural science field and will transcend from influencing single decision points to changing and improving decisions for the long term. Nudging has already been tested and utilized by institutions within the public sector and it is likely that more governments will appoint their own behavioural insights teams like the UK. In turn, we can expect that governing bodies will give greater weight to behavioural scientists’ advice and improve decision making processes in important sectors of society like health, finance and also the private sector.
Vlaev, I., King, D., Dolan, P. and Darzi, A. (2016), The Theory and Practice of “Nudging”: Changing Health Behaviors. Public Admin Rev, 76: 550-561. https://doi.org/10.1111/puar.12564
B. (2020, February 28). Explainer: What is a behavioral ‘nudge’? Retrieved February 09, 2021,from https://bloombergcities.medium.com/explainer-what-is-a-behavioral-nudge-f32150149deb
Bikker, Y. (2020, July 16). The 7 most creative examples of habit-changing nudges. Retrieved February 09, 2021, from https://medium.com/swlh/the-7-most-creative-examples-of-habit-changing-nudges-7873ca1fff4a
Dolan, P., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., King, D., & Vlaev, I. (n.d.). MindSpace: Influencing Behaviour through Public Policy(pp. 1-85, Tech.). UK Cabinet Office.