Strategy & Business Development

They're pushing you too: The potential of nudging

You may have heard about it through the media during the last couple of years. Nudging is the new black and is used by both governmental and private organizations. Something you probably haven't noticed is that you are also being nudged.

For example, Danish behavioral scientist Pelle Guldborg Hansen from Roskilde University in Denmark describe a nudging experiment conducted in 2013. Using simple tools, the researchers nudged corporate leaders into eating more apples simply by changing the arrangement on the buffet.

You're also being nudged when you're on social media sites such as Facebook and click the like button - just like the other 52 easily influenced users.

But what is nudging and how can you use it in your company?

What is nudging?

Nudging is an effective and gentle way of changing actions and behavior. The method originates from behavioral psychology and exploits our present behavioral patterns to help us make “better” decisions. That is, decisions that we would make if only we weren't so lazy, easily distracted or forgetful. The term was “invented” by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in the book “Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness” (2008).

A nudge is a gentle push. The method implies using small changes to influence people’s behavior and actions without depriving them of their freedom of choice. In the previous example all leaders still had the choice of selecting brownies instead of apples, but because of the arrangement most, of them chose the apples.

How to design a nudge

As mentioned, nudging originated from behavioral psychology and identifies six different tools that a choice architect (as Thaler and Sunstein calls people who design a nudge) has at hand. In order to construct a nudge, consider which tools you could use to help customers, employees or yourself to make better decisions or change behavior for the better. A nudge can combine several.

The six nudging tools are:

How often do you change the default configurations or do something other than the recommended, when you download a new program for your computer? My guess is: Not very often, if ever. And you are far from the only one who behaves this way. The reason for this is, in many cases, either that we are too lazy to figure out if other configurations are better, that we are afraid of what might happen if we change anything or that we simply cannot concentrate on reading what it says and therefore choose the easiest solution: Not changing a thing.

Our desire for choosing the easy way out, can be used for designing a nudge simply by making the default or the standards, the solution that serves us best.

An example mentioned by the authors is organ donation. In Denmark you have to actively decide whether you want to be an organ donor. A way to gain more organ donors could be setting it as default: You are a donor unless you actively choose not to be.

Expect errors
The second element of designing a nudge is how prone we all are to make errors. We are all human and as such we often make mistakes. When you design a solution, you can accommodate this by for instance making sure that it isn't possible to make that mistake. An example: Have you ever pressed “send” and immediately realized that you forgot to attach a file? Apparently many of us do this. That is why Gmail has introduced a notification, that you receive, if you wrote in your mail that you attached a file, when in fact you didn't.

Understand “mapping”
Mapping is Thaler and Sunsteins term for the relationship between a decision and its significance to you. A thing that is often hard for us comprehend. Too often it is hard to understand specifics on for instance a digital camera that focusses on strange abbreviations and megapixel. But how many truly know if they need 2 or 4 million megapixel? On the other hand it is way clearer to us if the description of the camera focusses on how big of a print the resolution can manage. There is a clear coalition between possible choices and what it means to us.

Give feedback
Feedback is important in many different contexts. When you're designing nudges it's important to consider if you can give the user a type of immediate feedback. If you, for instance, want people to use less electricity, you can make it easy to see how much electricity they use, for example by using a lamp which light intensity changes depending on how much electricity is being used. Or in public pools where there can be a lot of noise. Several of these places use an “ear” that changes color from green to yellow and from to red the more loudly it gets. That way it's easy for everyone in the public pool that the sound level needs to drop.

Structure complicated choices
Making choices can be complicated. Especially in situations where there are many things to choose from. That's why it's the choice architect’s job to structure the possible choices in a way that makes sense for the customer or the user. Think for instance, if your local paint shop organized its different colors alphabetically or if the library organized its books by size.

Encourage the right choice
Often, it is not because we don't want to make the right choice, we just can't figure out, what's best for us. As a choice architect you can do something about this. If you make sure you show what this choice will mean for the user. Not just now, but also in the future.

For instance, like you see on refrigerators, freezers and dishwashers that are marked with an energy label. This makes it easier for us to choose the solution that is cheaper in the long term. A choice that benefits both the economy of the customer and the environment.