Nudges for meaningful change

Work-based safety is one of the main strands of focus in the team of which I am part at the Wales Centre for Behaviour Change (WCBC). This area perhaps lends itself most obviously to collaboration between research psychology and industry. Although studied comprehensively, the complexity of organisations involved in hazardous activities means it is difficult to establish robust industry-wide models for safety.

According to DeJoy and colleagues, attempts to bring about a change in the culture of an organisation typically fall into one of two categories: ‘trickle up’ (change bubbles up through individual behaviour change) or ‘trickle down’ (change is directed by leaders). DeJoy argues that integrating these two approaches is most effective in changing culture. Senior management must therefore ensure they receive the right messages from the right people and must in turn identify the correct problems in order to offer the best solutions. Coaches can play a pivotal role as ‘change engineers’ in these instances. In this article I’d like to draw on the behavioural neuroscience we have covered so far to see how you, as a coach or leader, might bring about change in safety culture (or any other culture change for that matter).

You now know that people’s unconscious behaviour can be directed by means of a ‘nudge’ (involving primarily System 1, the ‘hot’ network). As defined by Thaler and Sunstein, a nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture* that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives”. For example, in one of WCBC’s own recent experiments, laying a trail of vinyl footprints to the fruit basket in the University cafeteria led to a substantial increase in fruit sales (and hopefully consumption). Whilst this intervention may have resulted in short-term benefits, it is far more valuable to promote lifelong healthy eating behaviours: in other words, create new habits. In order for this to happen, there has to be some cognitive processing of this new behaviour and a conscious decision-making process followed (involving primarily System 2, the ‘cool’ network). This may be initiated by something as simple as calling people’s attention to the nudge. They may then see the value in the change and decide they wish to change their behaviour. Thus a goal is created (part of the function of System 2).

Often, though, people do not act on a goal, in what is termed the ‘value–action gap’: the difference between what people aspire to and what they actually do. And, as McClelland showed, this gap can lead to poorer wellbeing. There are a number of strategies to close this gap, one of which is tied to reward. People are more likely to repeat a behaviour if they are rewarded for it. So how can people be rewarded? From the last article in this series you may remember that there are three basic human motivations, according to Ryan and Deci: competence, relatedness and autonomy. So, for example, resistance to a despotic government might grow and persist as participants feel rewarded through their relatedness with others in protest.

But humans are naturally thrifty with cognitive processing, and we try to avoid unnecessary cognitive exertion. For example, setting a reminder on your phone for you to get up and stretch every 20 minutes at your desk may rapidly become inconvenient and irritating as it interrupts other tasks. In order to inculcate our new pattern of behaviour it has to become more intuitive – in other words we must transform it into a new habit as quickly as possible. There are a number of ways of doing this, here I will mention just two:

  1. Practice. There is heated debate on the amount of practice necessary to form a new habit, from the popular 28-day pop-psychology rule attributed to Maxwell Maltz to the 10 000 hours suggested by Malcolm Gladwell in his bestseller Outliers. Personally, I think a reasonable figure is the 66 days evidenced in research by Lally and colleagues at UCL.
  2. Alter the environment. It is difficult to escape past habits when the environment is not supportive of this change. In other words, if the choice architecture that nudged the change in the first place is removed, it is unlikely the new habit will be maintained. An interesting development in this regard is the concept of ‘moments of transition’, or periods when people’s routine and environment is disrupted (when moving house, say) during which new habits are more readily instilled (such as sustainable household practices). How many people do you know who have quit their job or moved cities in order to start a ‘new life’?

To wrap up, if the task is to develop a ‘best practice’ for coaches trying to bring about change I would recommend the following steps:

  1. Use choice architecture to ‘nudge’ behaviour in the desired direction, tapping in to the ‘hot’ network’s responsiveness to subliminal cues.
  2. Follow up with a cognitive intervention that directs the ‘cool’ network to engage with the new choice presented and verify the new behaviour as a goal.
  3. Encourage the formation of a new habit by being cognisant of the brain’s mechanisms for habit formation, particularly motivation and reward, practice, and environmental cues. In so doing, responsibility for the behaviour is handed back to System 1.

– the Neuropsyguy –


*Choice architecture: how decisions can be influenced by the way in which choices are presented. For example, asking customers if they would prefer salad as an alternative to chips as a burger accompaniment might get more people to choose salad.



DeJoy, D. M. (2005). Behavior change versus culture change: Divergent approaches to managing workplace safety. Safety Science, 43(2), 105–129. doi:10.1016/j.ssci.2005.02.001

Gladwell, M. (2009). Outliers: the story of success. London; New York: Penguin Books.

Lally, P., & Gardner, B. (2013). Promoting habit formation. Health Psychology Review, 7(sup1), S137–S158. doi:10.1080/17437199.2011.603640

McClelland, D. C., Koestner, R., & Weinberger, J. (1989). How do self-attributed and implicit motives differ? Psychological Review, 96(4), 690.

Ryan, R. M., & Deci, E. L. (2000). Self-determination theory and the facilitation of intrinsic motivation, social development, and well-being. American Psychologist, 55(1), 68.

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2009). Improving decisions about health, wealth and happiness. London: Penguin Books Ltd : [distributor] Penguin Books Ltd.


Key Application Questions:

Do you know how any training or coaching you are providing actually works?

Does the environment of your teams support the habits they need to perform best?

Are you clear how you activate both the hot and cool networks?

Synaptic Potential offers science-based solutions and strategies that support, shape and align your people development initiatives, workspace design and organisational policies. If you would like to find out more about how we can help you unlock the Whole Brain Potential™ of your leaders or managers and teams then please get in touch to start a conversation.

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