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The Power of a Nudge: Little nudges with big impact

Cognitive psychology and behavioral economics have demonstrated again and again that small and apparently insignificant contextual changes can have a major effect on people's behavior. I will in this article present several famous examples of how small changes of context can nudge people’s behavior significantly. I will also dive deeper to understand the real power of a nudge.

  • By: Dr. Michael Wu
  • Published: 20-05-2015

Default This and That
One of the most popular and powerful tools for nudging people’s behavior is the use of defaults. It is fairly well know that a pre-selected or presumed default choice can increase a selection significantly. Nations that require citizens to explicitly opt-out of organ donation have a significantly higher—more than 3x—organ-donor rate than nations that require citizens to explicitly opt-in. Simply changing the presentation of the choices—a seemingly insignificant change of context—has a huge effect on what people ultimately choose.

There are several reasons why defaults have such a strong effect on behavior. First, defaults change the perception of the social norm, because people may believe that default choice is the one picked by most others. So people simply choose the default due to social conformity. The second reason is that people may perceive the default as a recommended choice that is somehow optimal. Lastly, defaults change the perception of the status quo. When a choice is complex or far in the future, such as organ donation, people don’t immediately grasp the consequences of their choice. In this scenario, people tend to stay with the status quo, because that is the path of least effort. 

Yes, you guessed it; defaults are little nudges with huge impact.


Environmental Changes to the Path of Least Resistance

Another powerful tool for nudging people into the habit of doing something is to change the environment. Simply by placing salads and fruits at eye-level on shelves, that are easy to reach in a cafeteria (and placing the sweets on harder to reach shelves) can nudge people into the habit of heathier diet. This is a very subtle change of the environment that doesn’t forbid people from eating sweets or changing their incentives for picking sweets over salads, or vice versa. The consumers always have a choice to pick the less healthy alternative should they want to. However, this subtle change of the environment is able to increase salad consumption by 300% and increase fruit sales by 102%. 

The same is also true of our social environment. You might hear of the strange finding that obesity seems to be contagious. This is really an effect due the nudging of our social environment. People around obese friends tend to develop unhealthy eating habits as a result of the behavior contagion in their social environment. 

Remember that the capacity to break norms—including social norms—is an adaptability resource that is often needed to carry out non-routine or non-conforming behaviors. Creating a social environment where overeating is the norm contributes to compulsive eating being the path of least resistance.


Avoid Splashing with a Nudge in the Right Direction

The last example is fairly well known—at least to most men anyway—the urinal fly. Who would’ve guessed that simply etching a house fly above the drain of the urinals is going to reduces spillage by 80%? This is a nudge, because it doesn’t prevent men from aiming elsewhere, nor does it change the economic incentives—you don’t win a prize or receive a badge for aiming at the fly. Conversely, you won’t be punished for mindlessly splashing other places (Unless you happen to hit the shoes of the man next to you perhaps?)

Giving someone a target, a goal, or a direction merely helps to focus people’s drifting attention. This essentially reduces the number of options by accentuating one option among many approximately equivalent ones.

The Real Power of Nudge
Because a nudge is such a subtle intervention, it often changes people’s behaviors or choices without them even knowing it. I can’t stress enough the importance of the subtlety here, because that is what makes nudge such a potent behavior driver. Nudge is powerful because it can change people’s behavior without taking away their autonomy, which is a very potent intrinsic motivator—from self-determination theory.

When designing the choice architecture of a nudge, it’s important to consider that consumers must always maintain their freedom to choose the unwanted alternatives. Moreover, these alternatives must be designed and constructed so they are approximately equal to the desired behavior—they must not be much-more-difficult or much-more-expensive than the behavior you want to encourage. In other words, consumers must be "able" to choose the unwanted behaviors just as easily and cheaply.

This is unlike anything we’ve seen before, because most behavior interventions require people to comply with certain rules, which often result in some loss of autonomy. Even gamification requires the users to opt-in to the “game” in order for us to drive the gamified behaviors. Although the best gamification strategies are those where the users don’t know and don’t feel like they are playing a “game,” users can often recognize it. They may not know precisely which behavior is being gamified, but they will recognize that they are being gamified. In that case, it can ultimately lead to annoyance, dissatisfaction and reduced engagement.

A nudge only plays a facilitative role in driving behaviors, so users typically don’t even know that they are being nudged. Moreover, there is no neutral design in nudge, because neutrality doesn’t exist in choice architecture. Every context (i.e. environment, presentation, etc.) drives some behaviors—including doing nothing. For example, researchers have shown that the first candidate on a ballot could get 4% more votes just for being listed first. This is the true power of a nudge, because people will be nudged whether they like it or not. There is no opt-out for a nudge, since opting out is a behavior that can be designed and nudged towards.

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Dr. Michael Wu
Dr. Michael Wu is the Chief Scientist at Lithium Technologies. Michael received his Ph.D. from UC Berkeley’s Biophysics graduate program, where he modeled visual processing within the human brain using math, physics, and machine learning. He is currently applying similar data-driven methodologies to investigate and understand the complex dynamics of the social web. Michael developed the Facebook Engagement Index (FEI), Community Health Index (CHI) and many predictive social analytics with actionable insights. His R&D work at Lithium won him recognition as a 2010 Influential Leader by CRM Magazine.

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