When Push Comes to Nudge

What do you do when you want to change someone’s behaviour? You can simply ask them to change. You could put up a poster. Perhaps you can try and explain why they should change. These are the traditional approaches – an attempt to change attitudes or beliefs with the assumption that behaviour will then also change as a result. There’s a general belief that this is the best way to effect change. Perhaps that’s why we’re always arguing with each other!

You will recall from last month that the brain appears to control behaviour through a dual-process system (Parkinson et al., 2000): a fast and efficient automatic pilot that controls much of our everyday comings and goings, and a slower more effortful cognitive system that does the hard thinking and evaluating when it needs to (Evans, 2008). When you have an argument with someone and try and get them to change, you are talking to the effortful, cognitive system. In fact, evidence suggests that this approach does not really work. We listen to the arguments, but then we just carry on what we were doing before!

An alternative approach to behaviour change is to make subtle changes to the environment to influence the automatic behaviour of the individual to do what you want them to do. This latter approach is called ‘nudging’ and is an integration of several separate fields of research including behavioural economics, behaviour analysis, design architecture and neuroscience. It sounds a little ‘under hand’ – influencing people’s behaviour without them realising it, though in many ways it is what advertising and marketing have been trying to do for years. I’ll return to the ethics of nudging at the end, but for the time being, I’ll share some developments from the Danish Nudge Network and from the conference I attended at the Kolding School of Design, Denmark.

A classic example is based on urinals in men’s toilets. Apparently men are poor shots and so splash and spill when they go to the toilet, leading to a messy and unpleasant experience for others. Posters and messages are not effective. However, if you put a little picture of a fly in the base of the urinal next to the drain hole then suddenly men become much better at targeting and cause less of a mess. This results in a very effective solution to a less than pleasant problem. And it doesn’t involve any attempt to convince men to take more care. It was successfully piloted at Schiphol airport and apparently reduces splashes and spills by 80%.

That’s a nudge.

In a self-service cafeteria, if you reduce the default plate size, then you reduce calorie intake of the customers by about 20% (Wansink, 1996). Essentially, when we wander about a buffet table we are on auto-pilot – we blindly pile our plate with food. How do we decide when we’ve got enough? Do we do a mental calculation of potential calorie contents? No, we stop piling the plate when things start toppling off the top! So, if you reduce the plate size, then you reduce the amount you take to the table and subsequently eat.

That’s a nudge.

The trick is to focus on situations when a person would normally be functioning automatically and then consider ways to signpost the desired behaviour for them. And if you want to prevent a behaviour, then help the individual snap out of their automatic day-dreaming. Flash a light at them. Put a physical or psychological barrier in the way. Whatever it takes to engage the conscious, thoughtful, cognitive system.

The DesignCamp conference specifically focused on an integration between design excellence and nudge psychology. A fascinating combination. How can we design beautiful, innovative and creative solutions to tricky real world problems such as healthy eating, energy conservation, exercise and reducing littering (amongst others)? Of course companies can use nudge techniques to create better and more productive working environments for their staff as well. And they can also nudge their customers and clients…

We’re looking to set up the British Nudge Network and we’ll keep you updated on progress. It would provide a forum to share ideas about how to help nudge people in the right direction – whether it be productivity, corporate responsibility or simply trying to be a little more healthy.

Ultimately, nudging is just a tool, it works by communicating with the fast, automatic, implicit system of the brain. It can be used for good or evil ends – that is the power and responsibility of the nudge architect.  Next time you are walking along a street , supermarket aisle or corridor, look around you and see if you can identify the ways in which the environment, and stimuli within it, are driving your behaviour without you realizing it!

Now where’s that cream bun that I just bought without thinking about it…

– Dr John –


Evans J (2008) Dual-Processing Accounts Of Reasoning, Judgment, And Social Cognition Annual Review Of Psychology 59 , 255–278

Parkinson JA, Cardinal RN, & Everitt BJ (2000). Limbic cortico-ventral striatal systems underlying appetitive conditioning. Progress in Brain Research. 126, 263-285.

Parkinson JA (2008). Positive emotions and reward: appetitive systems: amygdala and striatum. New Encyclopedia of Neuroscience (4th Edition). Elsevier.

Can Package Size Accelerate Usage Volume? (1996) Journal of Marketing, Brian Wansink, Vol. 60:3 (July), 1–14.

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