Nudging, what do you need to know?

Last June we organized an event at which Pelle G. Hansen was our keynote speaker. P. G. Hansen is a behavioural scientist and an expert in nudging. Nudging, you ask? Last week we showed you some examples of nudges, today we’ll explain more about the concept itself. Nudging is becoming more and more known and it’s basically “any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a particular way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (Thaler and Sunstein, 2008).

What is nudging?

Nudging is a gentle push in the right direction by making the desired behaviour more attractive without limiting people’s freedom of choice.

The goal of nudging is gently amending behaviour which is based on subconsciously made choices. To be able to work, a nudge has to meet some conditions:

  • A nudge has to be affordable or cheap to use
  • A nudge has to be easy to decline (opt out works better than opt in)
  • A nudge has to be transparent
  • A nudge has to help people with their existing preferences.

When you are nudging you use cognitive principles which guide human behaviour. And that behaviour works in motivation waves (Nir Eyal); one moment we’re motivated to eat healthily, yet the day after we’re more inclined to grab that bag of crisps tucked away on the top shelf. However, we can compassionate for these motivation waves by doing what we have to do to live a healthy life. If you’re really motivated you can profit from the moment by making an extra fruit salad for the times you’ll be less motivated or have less time. It’ll be there in the fridge waiting for you and much healthier than that bag of crisps.

We can nudge ourselves and, step by step, change our own behaviour. However, most nudges are there to change the behaviour of the target group. Yet, before we can tackle people’s behaviour and change it, we have to know how they behave per observation and research.

Lifespan of a nudge

Not all successful nudges have been in place long enough to research their long-term success. In fact in some cases this is of no consequence. For example a nudge where you have to opt out of organ donation is already successful once applied. It’s a behaviour you only have to show once in a lifetime. However, nudging repetitive behaviour can be more problematic since repeated reminders are needed to ensure those being nudged don’t relapse into their old ways. Chances are that they will get used to the nudge and that it’ll loose its strength. If we take the speed bump example from last week, drivers who are familiar with the neighbourhood will get used to the ‘speed bump’ illusion and therefore relapse into their old ways.

Nudges are applicable in different domains for different purposes. For instance to reduce spilling and waste, to improve health, to increase safety, to increase savings, to increase organ donation, etc. You’ll find dozens of examples on the internet of nudges that work, and should you want to apply them yourself, it’s best not to simply copy the nudge. Nudges are adapted to a researched behaviour pattern, so first you need to comply the behaviour of the people you want to nudge.

If you’re eager to know more, we recommend you read Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein. Another thought-provoking book is Hooked: How to build Habit-Forming Products by Nir Eyal. Or you can simply send an e-mail to