People are being nudged in many ways to shape their behavior. Nudging is any means that gently influences people to form good habits and make responsible decisions so they benefit themselves as well as the wider community. “A nudge is an intervention that maintains freedom of choice but steers people in a particular direction,” said Harvard Professor Cass Sunstein in an interview for a McKinsey article in 2021. He introduced the concept to the world in 2008 with Professor Richard Thaler, from the University of Chicago, in their book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. As a result, nudges have started to improve our lives in many ways we may not realize.
The ways this new field of behavioral science influences people are easy and usually cost-free. Nudging also has great potential as a form of change communication. Nudging opens up many possibilities for communicators to influence behavior changes on behalf of government policy (poverty reduction, early childhood development, community cohesion and respect, mental health and productivity at work, protecting the environment, volunteering and fundraising for charities, and personal wellbeing), as well as in marketing and in people’s daily lives.
Indications that nudges are starting to improve our lives in many ways
Governments are keen on nudging people into good habits without forcing them to make the change. An example of a health nudge is government encouraging delis and cafeterias to display fruit at eye level so it comes easily to mind for a customer to buy instead of less healthy options. This is much more subtle and acceptable than banning junk food. Supporters claim nudges are at least as effective, if not more effective, than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement.
In his interview, Sunstein said:
We know that good nudges still make the chooser’s life better, and bad nudges don’t. What we’re seeing more of now, however, is nudging to protect third parties. You might have a climate-change nudge where the basic goal isn’t to protect the chooser; it’s to reduce greenhouse-gas emissions. In Switzerland, for instance, people have been nudged to automatically enroll in clean-energy programs. If they don’t want to, they can opt out, although the “dirtier” program may be more expensive. That nudge is designed to protect people from climate change generally, not necessarily to protect individual choice makers.
In a 2020 McKinsey article, “Nudge, don’t nag,” the writers, Bill Schaninger, Alexander DiLeonardo & Stephanie Smallets, state that the three criteria of a good nudge are:
- A good nudge is all about choice. It gives people control over what they do.
- A good nudge is easy to follow – easy to understand and follow.
- A good nudge is personal: “Nudges that take into account individuals’ mindsets, preferences and behaviors ensure that the most desirable option overall is also the most desirable option for that specific individual – a true win-win.”
What a nudge is not
We should also understand what a nudge is not.
A nudge is not a reminder to do something, nor is it a call to action. Nudges aren’t mandatory and they don’t have consequences. If you’re constantly reminding or commanding [a] horse to drink, it’s not a nudge. It’s also not a nudge if the horse isn’t brought to the water the next day for forgoing the water the day before.
Growing understanding that nudges are starting to improve our lives in many ways
An example of nudges are starting to improve our lives is this pedestrian crossing in Iceland. It has been painted on the road as a 3D image, which makes drivers take notice and approach the location more cautiously.
Tree patterns slow speeding drivers
Another example is planting roadside trees in a certain pattern to slow drivers as they approach built-up areas. A UK council found that using speed cameras was a costly way to slow down drivers, so it used a nudging technique by planting trees in the shape of a funnel.
Trees were placed at steadily shorter distances apart on the approach to a village, causing drivers to see trees passing by faster in their peripheral vision. This influenced them to slow down because they thought they were going faster than they really were. Drivers slowed down by an average of 2-3 mph.
Saving lives on the roads
Similarly, the UK Behavioural Insights Team drafted text within a standard penalty notice to drivers who had been caught speeding. The team simplified the visual format and improved the call to action, with text explaining why speed limits existed and the consequences of speeding. Results: Reoffending rates dropped by 20% within 6 months of driver offences. Almost 14% improvement in payments. Likelihood of prosecution reduced by 41%, and the new notices were paid 20% faster. This is a good example of nudges starting to improve our lives in many ways.
Some people think this type of activity is manipulative and therefore undesirable, but if ethical considerations are properly taken into account, there shouldn’t be problems.
Communication potential for behavioral psychology principles
Donald Alexander suggests some of the areas into which public relations can apply behavioral insights to build cumulative knowledge of human behavior are in health (for example to encourage diabetes patients to seek new technologies to test blood sugar levels; have more males over 55 take bowel cancer tests; increase cervical cancer screening rates); gym industry (change attitudes toward negative concepts of overpaying for the utility); local councils (encourage ratepayers to be more water wise).
Nudges in the workplace
Organizations should consider incorporating nudge management when looking to improve the productivity of office employees. Nudges can shape the organizational environment and contexts, so that automatic processes contribute to productivity. Some examples include changing the default setting for how long meetings are scheduled or how intrusive digital notifications are to promote more productive working time.
Instead of implementing strict rules and procedures, organizations can shape the work environment using nudges to support decision making and foster productivity. Terry Flynn and Time Li wrote an article, “Nudge management – How behavioral science can increase productivity,” for the Institute for PR’s Behavioral Insights Research Center in 2020, in which they discuss the findings of a research paper by Phillip Ebert & Wolfgang Freibichler (“Nudge management: Applying behavioural science to increase knowledge worker productivity“). Flynn & Li say:
Changing defaults is a powerful form of nudging as people usually accept defaults to avoid the cognitive effort of careful evaluation. Not all time spent in meetings are productive, in part due to the information bias, a tendency to seek information in excess. Setting a shorter default meeting length can save time and reduce redundant and unproductive information sharing. Changes to the default settings of notifications like email and messaging to be less intrusive can support focus on more important tasks.
Knowledge sharing and collaboration is often critical for innovation. By designing office spaces to support conversation, knowledge workers are more likely to naturally engage with other. Kitchens and dining spaces can be placed between different departments to encourage interaction between workers with diverse ideas and perspectives.
Nudges can also operate on social norms, our desire to fit in with others. By encouraging open communication about individual plans and intentions, people are less likely to overestimate the time needed for a task, setting up success through more achievable goals.
If you are interested in how nudges can influence behavior change, read the many case studies in the Ogilvy Change behavioral science blog. Also, the UK-based Behavioural Insights Team has been especially active in this field in the public interest. As well, you can read Yannick Bikker’s 2019 Medium article titled, “The 7 Most Creative Examples of Habit-Changing Nudges,” (not sure if you have to be a subscriber to access). I find all this very positive and fascinating! These examples of nudges starting to improve our lives in many ways are based on good intentions to benefit target audiences – an exemplary motive.
In a similar way, you can tap into powerful, yet background words of influence in the workplace. Read about this in my article on background words of influence.
Photo by Gary Bendig on Unsplash.
Kim J. Harrison has authored, edited, coordinated, produced and published the material in the articles and ebooks on this website. He brings his experience in professional communication and business management to provide helpful insights to readers around the world. His wide-ranging career includes roles as a corporate affairs manager, consultant, author, lecturer and business manager. Kim has received several international media relations awards and a website award. He has been quoted in The New York Times and various other news media, and has held elected positions with his State and National PR Institutes.