The Power of Nudges: Insights on How to Influence Human Behavior

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A “nudge” is any small change in how a choice is presented that can influence human behavior in a measurable and predictable way.

Nudges are a growing interest in psychology. They focus on how we can change people’s behaviors without the use of government mandates or economic incentives. Many organizations, including governments, businesses, schools, and nonprofits, are beginning to harness the power of “nudges” to influence people’s choices toward certain values and goals.

For example, one common illustration of a nudge is a cafeteria placing healthier food at “eye level” and junk foods at harder to see places. This small change in our environment actually influences people to choose healthier foods to eat.

The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights lays the foundation for how individuals and organizations can begin using the power of nudges to influence people’s choices in positive ways.

Nudges can come in many different types. Some are created by businesses to influence consumers, or governments to influence citizens, or a person can even impose a nudge on themselves to change their own behavior.

This article will describe both “mindless nudges” (small changes that can unconsciously influence our choices), as well as “mindful nudges” (small changes that can consciously influence our choices).


Mindless Nudges

Mindless nudges are ways of changing human behavior without the person being conscious of it. These often include subtle changes in how something is presented that can play a significant role in the choices we make. Often times we aren’t even aware of how these subtle changes at all, let alone how they are influencing us.

  • Default – One of the most common nudges is to make the desired behavior the “default” option. When people use a new product, service, or website, they are much more likely to keep the default settings rather than change them. It’s easier to keep the status quo. This is a powerful nudge many social media sites use to gather data from their consumers. When you sign up to many websites, you automatically agree to let your information be shared. This nudge has also shown to increase organ donations when patients are presented with this choice as a default option.
  • Framing – Another common nudge is to present the same situation from a different perspective, which is called “framing.” For example, research has shown that people are more motivated to make a decision if it is framed in terms of minimizing potential losses rather than maximizing potential gains. This is known in psychology as “loss aversion.” So if you present a situation in terms of what someone will lose or “miss out” on is often better at changing behavior than focusing on what they will gain.
  • Environment – Anything in our environment can be a potential influence on our thoughts and behaviors. Studies have illustrated a wide range of examples, including how a picture of eyes on a wall can influence people to act more ethically and donate more to a charity (the “feeling of being watched” can be a powerful influencer on human behavior). Another recent example is a study that shows that a man holding a guitar is seen as more attractive than a man who isn’t. These can all be considered little environmental “nudges” that influence our decision-making. (You can find other examples of these environmental influences here.)
  • Anchoring – Anchoring is a common tendency for us to rely too heavily on the first piece of information offered when making decisions. For example, 2 groups of people were asked to estimate the population of a city in Australia. Before estimating, one group was asked whether they thought the population was greater or less than 50,000, while a second group was asked if it was greater or less than 10,000,000. The second group was more likely to give a higher estimate because they anchored their decision on the previous information. Businesses and stores sometimes make use of this “anchoring effect” by exposing consumers to higher priced products before offering a much lower priced products. This small effect can make products seem like a better deal at an unconscious level.
  • Social Influence – Another big unconscious motivator of our choices is social influence. When we see other people behave a certain way, we tend to mimic their decisions. This is known in psychology as the “bandwagon effect.” At an unconscious level we think to ourselves, “Well, if a lot of other people are making this choice, then it must be a good choice and I’ll make it too.” In one case study, researchers made phone calls to try to increase voter participation. In one script they emphasized that “voter turnout was expected to be low,” and in the other script they emphasized that “voter turnout was expected to be high.” When voters were told that participation was expected to be high, they were found to be more likely to participate themselves.


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The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights is a great book by Dilip Soman, a behavioral economist and professor of marketing at the University of Toronto. It focuses on how individuals and organizations can use behavioral insights to change human choices.



Mindful Nudges

Mindful nudges are ways of changing human behavior by making a person more conscious of the choice they are making. Many people make decisions without really thinking or second-guessing themselves. Mindful nudges are a way to make people “step back” and reevaluate exactly what type of choice they want to make.

  • Boundaries – The more steps it takes to make a choice, the harder that choice is to commit to. This simple principle can be very effective in curbing bad habits. By creating extra “boundaries” between ourselves and our bad choices, we make it increasingly more difficult to continue making those choices. For example, by putting a lock on your cabinet where you keep your junk food, you have to take that extra step to unlock your cabinet before you indulge yourself. This small boundary gives you more time and space to re-evaluate your decision to eat junk food before you commit to it. In the same way, having junk food readily available (such as a jar of M&M’s on your desk) will make you even more likely to eat unhealthy – because the easier a decision is, the less conscious you have to be to make it (Here’s more about creating boundaries between you and your bad habits).
  • Earmarking – Earmarking is a great way to become more conscious of how we consume our money and savings. The basic idea is to separate money into different categories, like “Groceries,” “College,” “Leisure,” or “Savings.” When we assign money to a particular category, our minds are more committed to that money’s designated purpose. For example, in one study it was found that when individuals received payment in 2 envelopes (with one designated to “Savings”) they were much more likely to save that money than individuals who received payment in 1 envelope. By categorizing our budget and separating our money into categories, we can curb excessive consumption and save more appropriately.
  • Partitioning – Partitioning works off the same concept as “earmarking.” But instead it’s focused on separating other forms of consumption: such as food, drinking, TV, or internet. For example, people are likely to eat less junk food (such as cookies or popcorn) if it is sealed in multiple smaller containers rather than one large container. Eating one big bag of popcorn is only one decision, but eating 3 smaller bags of popcorn is 3 decisions. Researcher shows that by increasing the amount of “decision points,” we can encourage more mindful consumption. You could apply a similar idea to limiting TV consumption by setting your TV to ask whether to turn off every 45 minutes or so.
  • Alerts – Setting an alert on your phone or computer is another type of mindful nudge that can make us more conscious of our daily choices. For example, if you have trouble focusing at work or getting distracted, then you may want to set an alert on your computer every 2-3 hours. This alert can serve as a reminder that you need to complete a certain project, so you should probably get off of Facebook or Twitter. This is a very simple concept, but it’s a small way to inject more consciousness into our daily activities. Whenever an alert goes off, you are forced to re-evaluate what you are doing in the present moment and make a decision to continue doing it or start something else.
  • Virtual Progress – To stay more committed to a decision, it helps to see that we are making progress toward our goal. Without this feeling of progress, we become far more likely to ditch the decision and walk away. When people are waiting on the phone to speak to customer service, or standing in line at the DMV, they want to know that their commitment isn’t in vain. By creating “progress points” – such as estimated times or signposts – people can physically see that progress is being made. Many businesses and organizations are trying to find ways to create this feeling of progress so that they don’t lose potential clients or customers when they are waiting in queues. (This “feeling of progress” is also why so many people can get addicted to mobile apps and games, because getting “immediate feedback” is more likely to keep us committed to our decisions.)

These are the main nudges discussed in the The Last Mile: Creating Social and Economic Value from Behavioral Insights, but there are many more I didn’t get to dive into at all.

Theoretically, there are an infinite amount of potential nudges that can influence our decisions in small ways. Psychology research is just beginning to discover these nudges, but we can expect to discover many more in the coming years and decades.

What’s a behavior that you’ve been wanting to change? Reflect on the nudges mentioned in this article and try to think of a way to apply one of them to your own life.

Creating our own nudges takes creativity and experimentation. Whenever applying the concept of “nudges” to your life, make sure they are actually influencing you to make the choices you desire. It often helps to find a way to track and measure your behavior, and only focus on implementing one “nudge” at a time.


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