Nudging, a gentle push in the right direction

We all have some attitudes of which we know that they aren’t good but we don’t always think about them. We all would like to change, this is in fact the right time to start thinking about our New Year’s resolutions but for the ones that aren’t motivated enough to change their behavior themselves, there is always behavioral design to help you in a very subtle way. Behavioral design is a very broad domain but today we’ll focus on ‘Nudging’. Before we explain what it is, we’ll tease you with some good examples of nudges that were successfully implemented.

Example 1

A classic example of nudging is at Schiphol airport where images of flies were placed in the men’s urinals.

Because men like to aim at targets, the placement of the fly in the urinal led to a reduced spillage of 80% which has lowered cleaning costs by 20%.

Example 2

This great example of nudging is applied for instance in self-service restaurants and cafeterias. The size of a plate has a direct effect on the intake of calories (B. Wansink’s research: Mindless eating: why we eat more than we think (2006)).

The size of our plate affects how much we consume. The study shows that we serve 52% more and eat 45% more than when served a smaller plate and that we also waste 135% more food by eating from a larger plate. Our eyes trick our brain into believing that we have more food on our plate when the plate is smaller than when it’s served on a bigger plate.

TIP: This may be a good idea for that Christmas dinner! Just serve your guests food on smaller plates. They will still have eaten their fill but won’t suffer from the traditional indigestion afterwards.

Example 3

We see it all the time, people throwing their litter onto the pavement and wonder how hard can it be to just hold onto those empty packets or sweet wrappers until they pass a garbage bin?

Copenhagen also noticed this problem and handled it with a nudge. Before putting the nudge in place, students from Roskilde University handed out caramels on the street and then counted the discarded empty wrappers as well as those in the garbage bins. After observing people’s behaviour, they then placed green footsteps on the pavement leading to the garbage bins and repeated the same exercise. At the next count, the noticed there were 46% less discarded wrappers.

We have our GAS fines (fines imposed by local councils for minor misdemeanours) but these aren’t really effective. Why should nudging work better? Fines need to be enforced daily and applied everywhere to have a real impact on people’s behaviour. Placing green footprints on the pavement is a constant reminder to those people who aren’t fully aware of their actions when they drop their wrappers onto the street. Litter is litter, however small.

Example 4

As seen in the ‘fly in the urinal’ case, cleaning costs were reduced, but nudging can also be a cheaper option than the regularly applied solution.

In Philadelphia road planners experimented with visual illusions to nudge traffic to slow down. Why not use regular speed bumps? The illusions were burned into the street and cost 1500 dollars less than proper speed bumps. They do not disturb water flow during heavy rain or flooding and neither do they pose a threat to emergency services driving at high speed.

To test this project, they burned 10 sets of illusions into a stretch of 800 metres of road to see what effect they would have. Before the illusions were installed, drivers drove at an average of 60 km/h, 20 km/h over the speed limit. A month after installation the average speed was down to 37 km/h.

Nudges are a gentle push in the right direction and next week we’ll discuss how they work.