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Richard Thaler, an economist developed the nudge theory. It is about giving positive reinforcements and indirect suggestions to influence the behaviours and decision-making of individuals. The theory gained popularity through his book, ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’ published in 2008.

Resistance and confrontation usually occur when individuals are forcefully directed to behave in a particular way. These resistance and confrontation techniques also usually have a punishment threat to implement behaviour change.

Nudge theory is unconventional, as it does not use the usual authoritative measures to control behaviour. The techniques used to implement behaviour change in the nudge theory are indirect, non-confrontational and diplomatic. Some techniques can also provide support and pleasure to individuals.

Principles Of Nudge Theory

Thaler gave three principles to guide the use of nudges.

  1. The nudges should be transparent and clear. Deceptive nudges should not be used.
  2. An individual should be allowed to walk out of a nudge whenever he/she feels like. Free will is given importance.
  3. There should be some rationale to believe that the behaviour change (using nudges) will lead to good outcomes.

Types Of Nudges

Different types of nudges exist to alter or implement behaviour changes.

  • Social-Proof Heuristic: This type of nudge is when people look at others to find guidance in deciding about their self. For example, people might look at others in unfamiliar situations (new class or any new environment) to guide their behaviour. This nudge has been used to improve food habits and hygiene habits.
  • Default Option: This type of nudge is something that people receive without putting in any effort. It is like an option that pops up on their screen that they just must click. For example, a lot of food ordering websites such as Zomato, have a default option of donating to a shelter. Individuals just must click one checkbox to make it happen.

Components Of Nudge Theory

1. Nudge:

Thaler and Sunstein defined nudge as a technique that predictably alters behaviour. The nudges should be easy and doable. They should be small and inexpensive to execute.

2. The Choice Architecture:

It is an individual who manages or applies the nudge theory. Choice architecture means that change is implemented through designing choices for people that will support them in making effective decisions. The choice of architecture must be reliable and ethical.

3. Libertarian Paternalism:

Thaler used this term to describe the underlying philosophy behind the nudge theory. By using this term, they agree that the theory does have some amount of paternalism. At the same time, they emphasise the importance of protecting an individual’s freedom to make choices, being compassionate and caring for the environment.

They define paternalism as a leader’s responsibility towards people and the environment. Libertarian is defined as the freedom to make choices and the need to protect that freedom.

4. Heuristics:

Heuristics are equivalent to nudges. There are a lot of heuristics used in nudge techniques such as availability heuristic, framing, and mindlessness. These heuristics can be used positively or negatively.

  • Availability heuristic can occur when an individual becomes so familiar with a thing or concept that they no longer question it. For example, if we see an advertisement for soaps on multiple forms of media frequently, we are less likely to question its validity or credibility.
  • Framing is presenting a thing or a concept positively or negatively. To get a particular reaction or behaviour change from an individual. For example, positive reframing is used with children and adults to make them feel better or lighter about tough things or negative experiences.
  • Mindlessness is the tendency of people to make decisions and form opinions distractedly. They do not concentrate on their opinion or decisions. It could happen due to tiredness, difficulty of the task, false beliefs, etc. Due to this heuristic, a lot of corporations can take advantage of humans. They use shopping discounts and coupons to distract humans from buying unnecessarily.

Examples Of Nudge Techniques In Real Life

  1. Making garbage bins more available on streets so that people have access to throwing waste in bins instead of littering the street.
  2. Consuming food from smaller plates to control weight management instead of constantly counting calories.
  3. One can keep fruits and healthy chips on the kitchen platform to make them more accessible than junk food. This could be done to nudge self towards healthy eating.

Applications Of Nudge Theory

  1. Education: Nudge theory has been applied in classrooms to meet behavioral outcomes and academic goals. It can be applied in classrooms, by calling out a student’s name in the class and asking them questions about the topic that is being taught, to encourage attention and focus. This challenges the students to be active in class. Deadlines and reminders to submit assignments or projects are also nudges to encourage students to do their work within time.
  2. Healthcare: Nudge theory has been applied to healthcare to help doctors make better decisions. Research has found that nudging was used to support hand hygiene (washing hands) among doctors to reduce the number of hygiene-related infections.
  3. Fundraising: Nudge theory has been used in the context of fundraising to increase donations for things and events. Some strategies are applied here, such as making the process of donation easier by sending emails that remind or prompt them into donating. Social influence can also be used here. Asking for donations in a public place makes the donating individual identifiable in the eyes of people. More people will also be willing to donate after viewing this previous individual because of group norms.
  4. Parenting: Nudge theory can be used to parent children and modify their behaviour for positive outcomes. Making them feel appreciated when they perform a desirable behaviour (finishing their vegetables from the salad) could help in strengthening the behaviour.
  5. Fitness: Nudge theory can be used to motivate and reinforce fitness related behaviours such as exercising, healthy eating, etc. A lot of techniques are still used to subtly motivate people to maintain their fitness. For example, a lot of public places only have a single lift and a flight of stairs. Having only one lift limits the number of people using the lift, leading the others to use the stairs.

Criticism Of Nudge Theory

Nudge theory has been criticised since it does not seem to provide long-lasting changes in behaviours. Some critics believe nudges reduce autonomy, take away freedom, reduce well-being and threaten independence in individuals. It has also been said that small or cheap nudges are not enough, drastic nudges or behavioural interventions are required in certain situations.

For example, in cases of alcohol addiction or substance abuse, drastic measures or interventions are needed. Some nudges can produce ‘reactance’, which means it could create a rejection or rebellion against the behaviour that the nudges are supporting. Individuals can get frustrated with repeated nudges and exert self-control through rebellion or reactance.

The repeated nudges to completely abstain from alcohol can become annoying for some people and they may reject or react negatively towards these nudges. This happens in fewer cases but is a probable outcome of nudges.

Wilkinson criticized the theory by stating that nudges are manipulative. Yeung and others questioned the scientific validity of the theory.

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