08.12.2022 - by Timothy Desmet

Want to nudge? Go EAST !


Nudging, a term made popular by Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler, is presenting a choice in such a way that people are more likely to make the right decision - but without forbidding options. In the words of Thaler: “Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

For nudging to work, you need to understand what really drives human behavior. In fact, the very reason nudging exists is that people are difficult to convince solely by rational arguments. Almost all smokers rationally know that smoking is very unhealthy, but most of them find it impossible to quit.

According to Daniel Kahneman, another Nobel Prize winner, that is because our brain makes choices based on two broad decision making systems. System 2 is our rational brain and allows us to make logical decisions. We can calculate how much (23 x 46)+14 is, but this process is slow, complicated and costs a lot of energy. That’s why most of our decisions are made by System 1, our instinctive, emotional, associative brain, sometimes called our reptile brain. So if, as a society, we want to stimulate good behavior (behavior that makes people healthy, wealthy and happy) we will be much more successful if we work through System 1.

But what makes System 1 tick? This is a very difficult question, but one of the simplest and easiest to remember frameworks to what criteria to use when setting up a nudge is the EAST framework. This framework was set up by The Nudge Unit, the nickname for the Behavioural Insights Team, that was created in the UK to spread the understanding of behavioral approaches across the policy community.


First, we know that System 1 is quite lazy. So, one way to get people to do something is to make it very simple. It is crucial to make the desired behavior as easy as possible and reduce all possible frictions.

This works, even in quite important decisions, such as wanting to be an organ donor. There happens to be a big difference between the willingness to donate organs between otherwise very similar countries. Take Denmark and Sweden. Whereas over 80% of Swedes are organ donors, less than 10% of Danes are willing to donate their organs after their death.

The reason? Simple! In Sweden you are an organ donor by default and you need to let the state know if you don’t want to donate your organs. In Denmark you are not a donor by default and you have to take action to let your government know if you want your organs to be used after you die.

When we notice the red tape, the difficult language in official letters (from the government, utilities companies, etc.) and how complex some procedures are (e.g. asking for subsidies, claiming certain benefits etc.), we believe there is still a lot of low hanging fruit for the government and other organizations by making things more easy.


Second, for people to actually change their behavior, they need an option that is attractive. By using surprise, novelty, rewards or incentives for instance.

Thaler’s favorite nudge was the fly in the urinal of Schiphol airport. Apparently this made it much more attractive for men to aim in the right direction, reducing “spillage” as it was called in the academic publication.


A more recent example are the many vaccine lotteries that were organized in several American states. Even regarding an important decision around which consisted a lot of controversy in the USA - whether to be vaccinated or not - organizing lotteries to convince people to do the right thing apparently helped a lot.


One of the strongest drivers of human behavior is the need to belong to a social group. People want to have the feeling their choices are in line with what other – similar – people would choose. People hate to feel isolated.

That kind of herd mentality is exactly why online retailers like Amazon let you know what items other people looked for or bought. You might feel this is unnecessary and unsought advice, but the truth is that it does influence your buying behavior.

One of the most famous nudges of the Nudge Unit acted upon this principle. They were asked to increase the number of people who pay their taxes in time. One of the nudges that worked best? Simply mentioning at the beginning of the letter: “The great majority of people in your local area pay their taxes on time.”


A final element to keep in mind is not related to the content of the nudge, but to the timing of the nudge. Nudging works best, evidence shows, when it is closest in time to the moment the actual decision is being made.

A strong case comes from inside the Nudge Unit again. They were asked to help in a case where a lot of people didn’t pay their invoice up to the point a bailiff needed to be sent over. In this case, they didn’t change the warning letters that came before a bailiff was sent, but they sent a text message to the debtors saying if you don’t pay us now the bailiff will get in the car and visit you today. Making it extremely urgent and timely, they noticed that lots of people paid at this moment to avoid having a bailiff visit on the same day.

Another nice example is that an insurance company found out that people were much more honest about an insurance claim when they were asked to provide a signature first (stating that the claim was in line with the truth) than when they had to provide the signature at the end of the procedure. Making them sign first made them more honest.


By making decisions Easy, Attractive, Social and Timely, you increase the chances that you are working with rather than against System 1 and that you will be able to help people make healthier choices. Of course there are other criteria and principles, but EAST makes the essence easy to remember and apply. And therefore, the EAST framework remains one of our most favorite frameworks when it comes to nudging.

Discover further inspiration in the Case section of our website.

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