Sales, Marketing and Communication

The pros and cons of nudging

Recently, nudging has recieved a lot of attention with its promises of a cheap, discrete, unrestricted alternative to rules, warnings, restrictions and other negative courses of action. Nudging claims to be able to change people’s behavior simply by changing their surroundings. But have you also heard about the criticism the method has attracted?

While almost everyone agrees that the method is an appealing thought, not everyone agrees that nudging has the potential that Cass R. Sunstein and Richard H. Thaler claims in their book “Nudge. Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness”. Both theorists and politicians alike criticizes nudging for its childish ways, for instance, and many voice concern about nudging manipulating our freedom of choice.

Here, we walk you through the debate and provide perspective, help you implement the nudging method with a clean conscience. Or choose to skip it.

A moralizing nanny

As mentioned, the method is not equally attractive to everyone. For instance, nudging is being criticized for being moralizing and arrogant. Like an unwanted “nanny”. Making yourself the judge of what's good and bad behavior is highly unattractive to several critics.

And nudging can be moralizing, agrees Thaler and Sunstein. As with many other methods that is applied to changing our behavior. Therefore, a choice architect (as Thaler and Sunstein calls people who design nudges) must be very explicit about her goals and purpose and about which nudges that are being set into motion. It's easy to imagine that an organization could face a media storm, if inappropriate, unclear or non-communicated nudges gets “revealed”.

But if nudging is done right, it is always done for our (the customers, the citizens) own good with our knowing and in order to compensate for our irrational behavior that far too often prohibit us from making the choices that, objectively speaking, are best for us.

This is a critique you often meet in the British media and articles, perhaps because England is far along in implementation of nudging. For instance, the government has developed what is commonly referred to as a “nudge unit”.

Manipulation in disguise?

Another of the more consistent points of criticism of nudging is that nudging manipulates our freedom of choice. Because the method can affect the choices we make without us noticing it.

Two of Denmark's leading experts, Pelle Guldborg Hansen and Andreas Maaløe Jespersen, actually agrees with the critics. Nudging can potentially be manipulating. But as they also claim: So can every other method of behavioral change, for example prohibition, injunction, raising prices and taxes. 

At the same time, the researchers claim that nudging “Is not necessarily about “manipulation”, nor necessarily about influencing “choice”. (Hansen and Jespersen: Nudge and the manipulation of choice).

According to Hansen and Jespersen nudging is not about “choice” because “to influence a choice” can be devided into two types of choice: Random and intentional. And nudging only takes place if this influence of choice is deliberate/intentional.

And why is nudging not manipulation? As the two Danes say, it is manipulation – sometimes. But for it to take place two things must be fulfilled:

  1. The nudged must be non-transparent, which means that the citizen must be unable to figure out that it is a nudge and what the purpose of the nudge is.

  2. The nudge must manipulate our freedom of choice (instead of our behavior).

Therefore, Hansen and Jensen divides nudging into four categories based on two scales. A nudge can be:

  • Transparent / nontransparent

  • Manipulating choice / manipulating behavior


  Transparent Nontransparent
Manipulating choice 
(Automatic thinking)
Fly in the urinal.
Seat belt alarm.
Green footprints toward trashcan.

Adding irrelevant alternatives to options.
Open the freezer lid to increase sales of ice.

Manipulating behavior
(Reflective thinking)
Change printer-default to print on both sides.
Playing relaxing music on flights, railway stations etc.
Organ donation.
Change default to “Yes”.
Placement of food in e.g. buffet, cafeteria etc.

To understand the difference between whether a nudge manipulates choice or behavior, we have to make a quick detour to Tversky and Khanemann’s “Dual Process Theory” that, briefly put, claims that our brains uses two different systems of thinking. One is intuitive and automatic, while the other is reflective and rational.

Hansen and Jespersen describes the difference between the two thinking systems like this:

  • Automatic thinking can be characterized by being fast, instinctive and typically not associated with experiences you would normally characterize as thinking.

  • Reflective thinking regards deliberate and conscious treatment of information. It is slow and demands effort and concentration. It's associated with self-consciousness, the experience of action, self-control and will.

Whether a nudge is transparent or nontransparent depends on whether the nudged finds out that she is being nudged into changing her behavior or choices, regardless if it happens before or after the nudge.

Nudge wisely

It is nudges that are positioned in the manipulating choice / nontransparent –square (colored red) that the choice architect must avoid. As Hansen and Jespersen write in their article:

“… it is difficult to find acceptable places for the responsible use of non-transparent type 2 nudges in democratic societies.” (Hansen and Jespersen)

So if you are considering nudging in your organization, use the method wisely. Be aware of pros and cons of nudging before you dive into it. And always keep the responsibility of the choice architect in mind. Or as Richard H. Thaler always writes when he signs his book: “Nudge for good”.