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Nudging: how to make better decisions

26th October, 2020   •   4 min

Nudging can help you and those in your team make better decisions. Since the publication of Thaler and Sunstein’s book Nudge, teams have been using them to improve their practice. To use them in the right way, it is important to understand how they work.

So what is a nudge?

Nudges are small actions through which the behaviour of an individual or a group can be influenced. They must not be coercive, not come with large economic incentives or limit individuals’ choices.

The real benefit of nudges are that because they are small actions, they are cheap and easy to implement. They can create effective behavioural change with little effort, which can make them a useful tool in your personal and professional lives.

We can use nudges in two ways: Outcome Nudges where a third-party sets the desired behavioural outcome and makes changes to the decision makers’ environment accordingly.

Process Nudges where the decision maker sets their desired behavioural intention and a third party then nudges them in that direction.

How are nudges a part of everyday life?

With individuals

We see nudging every day – think of the arrows on the floor encouraging you to use a one-way system, or to stand apart from the person next to you (these are examples of outcome nudges).

You could use a nudge to improve your own decision making. Let’s say you wanted to eat healthier: you could use a process nudge and have your takeaway options ranked in terms of ‘healthiest first’ on the app. This would encourage you to make healthier choices purely based on the way in which the information is presented to you, as we tend to pick the options first shown to us.

With groups

We can also use nudges to influence group behaviour. The UK has had a Behavioural Insights Team (also known as the ‘Nudge Unit’) as part of government since 2010, which advises on the most effective way to implement social policies. Some of their previous successes include nudges to increase tax payments, charity giving, electoral participation and organ donation.

With organisations

Nudges can also improve decision-making across an organisation. For example, Siemens wanted to increase its employees’ pension contribution. They created a personalised email campaign harnessing social norms. They told people that people like them save £100 a month’ which encouraged people to save at least that if not more. Individuals were targeted on the platforms that they would use the most. The result was that out of the 11,000 people targeted, 2,500 changed their contribution by an average of 2.1%.

How can I implement Nudging?

Influential frameworks have been developed by behavioural scientists to create effective nudges, including EAST and The Behavioural Change Wheel. Below is a tool based off these frameworks that you can use to create nudges:

To illustrate how valuable nudges can be, here are two examples showing how this framework can be applied in a business:

Encouraging flexible working in a large insurance company

Identify target behaviour: an organisation worked with the Behavioural Insights Team to change their rigid 9-5 culture into one of flexible working nnBarriers to behaviour: team cultures not being pro flexible working, meetings being scheduled in the office at all times of the day.

Nudges created:

  • managers publicly endorsing flexible working
  • organising an interdepartmental competition to find the most flexible team
  • changing the organisation’s email calendar from 9-5 to 10-3, reducing the window in which staff members could schedule in-office meetings – if people wanted to schedule them outside core hours, they would have to justify their decision

Result: 7.1% increase in amount of flexible working in the first couple of months

Improving leaders’ implementation of feedback

Identify target behaviour: Google wanted their leaders to act more on their feedback survey results about how they are doing and improve the company’s leadershipnnBarriers to behaviour: no time to think of how to implement feedback, laziness, not knowing how to implement feedbacknnNudge created: email reminders with micro lessons tailored to feedback for each managernnResult: Google’s leaders who received the nudges improved on the targeted behaviour in the next survey by 22-40 percentage points (compared to a control).

When creating a nudging strategy, it is key to monitor the nudge through a controlled study and test its effectiveness. This is because some nudges may seem perfect on paper but may not work in your individual context. It may take a couple of tries to find a nudge that works well for you. This effort is worth it – as the examples above have shown, nudges can be very effective.

We would love to hear from you if this framework was helpful, or if you have used nudging in your workplace or personal life. If you would like to learn more about how you can use nudges to change your or your team’s behaviour, please get in touch.

Further reading:

  • Nudging ‘textbook’: Thaler, Richard H.,Sunstein, Cass R. (2008) Nudge: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. New Haven: Yale University Press.
  • A good summary of Nudging
  • More examples of Nudging in businesses: 1 2
  • Google example