Nudging; how to trick people into doing the right thing

Nudging is basically positive manipulation. It’s the art of tricking people into doing what’s in their own best interest (but what they, for whatever reason, don’t do of their own accord).

Nudging is particularly popular in government circles, where people are regularly thinking about ways to solve tricky social challenges. Here are a few examples of typical challenges that are perfect for nudging:
– how do we convince people to insulate their homes?
– how do we make people drive more safely?
– how might we make people eat healthily?
– how do we make more people sign up for organ donation?

Luckily, in our modern society, most people are free to make their own choices. At the same time, most of us have a hard time making the right decisions. Just think about the many smokers who are paving their lungs with tar or the kilos of fast food that are consumed every day. We know it’s bad… but we do it anyway. We simply can’t help ourselves.

This is where nudging comes in. It’s a type of friendly manipulation. Of course, we are all free to make our own choices, but the way those choices are presented to us strongly influence our decisions.

Choice architects

The people who organise the context in which people make decisions are called ‘choice architects’. You might not know it, but you too are probably a choice architect at times. If you are a parent explaining the different educational options to your child, you are a choice architect. If you are in charge of designing the cafeteria menu, you are a choice architect. A doctor describing alternative treatments to a patient, the person announcing the train’s delay and the shop keeper deciding on which shelf to put different products; all choice architects.

A choice architect influences the decisions other people make. The mere fact that information is delivered in a certain way affects the choice we make. The design of choice is never neutral. As a choice architect, you have to assume that everything matters.


In their book ‘Nudge’ Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein describe a nudge as “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

Thaler and Sunstein object to limiting people in making their own choices but deem it legitimate for choice architects to try to influence people’s behaviour in order to make their lives longer, healthier and better.

In other words: nudging should not forbid people to do anything and should not aim to change people’s minds by offering a substantial financial reward. It should merely be a subtle push in the right direction.

There are some compelling examples of nudging that illustrate the power of this friendly type of psychological manipulation. Let’s start with the UK, where the government took serious steps to influence it’s citizens behaviour.

Nudge Unit

In 2010 David Cameron established the Behavioural Insights Team, also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’. The goal of the economists and psychologists in this team: figuring out how to nudge the English people into making better decisions.

One of the challenges the Nudge Unit encountered, was the fact that very few Brits insulated their attics. Even offering generous subsidies had little effect. During their investigation, the Nudge Unit finally realised that what kept the Brits from insulating their lofts was not the insulating itself. It was the fact that people had to clean up the junk that, over the years, had accumulated in their attic!

This insight led the Nudge Unit to offer attic-clearing services. The result of this simple incentive? The number of people insulating their lofts increased almost fivefold.

Smaller plates and toilet flies

Of course, governments aren’t the only parties who have embraced nudging. Companies are using the principles too. Google, for instance, used nudging to battle food waste. In the cafeteria, employees can choose between two sizes of plates. A note next to the plates informs the unsuspecting employee that 66% of employees chose the smaller plate. It turns out that most people follow the majority and food waste was effectively reduced.

Probably the most famous example of a simple nudge, however, comes from Schiphol airport. The fact that some male travellers have very poor aim when going to the loo can lead to a very messy bathroom. To deal with this annoyance, a smart economist contrived a crafty trick. By etching an image of a black house fly onto the bowls of the urinals, just next to the drain, men are nudged into aiming properly. It turns out the ‘target’ reaches its goal. The result of the toilet flies is a whopping 80 per cent reduction in spillage.

How can nudging help you?

Are you in charge of changing certain people’s behaviour? Then why not subtly nudge them in the right direction… There are many ways to positively manipulate people to make better decisions. If you’re interested in this subject, I recommend you to read ‘Nudge’ by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein. As we are all choice architects every now and then, it pays to know how to set people on the right path.



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