08.12.2022 - by Davide Rigoni

Making your nudge work: 3 checks to change human behavior effectively


Nudging is considered by many a revolutionary way of improving human decisions about health, finance, education, and public policies. One of the most popular nudges is the urinal fly at the Amsterdam Schipol Airport. By attempting to reduce cleaning costs and get rid of the unpleasant consequences of the “spillage” around urinals, the cleaning manager at Amsterdam's Airport decided to glue a realistic image of a fly on all the urinals of the Airport, thinking that this would give people something to aim at. This intervention was not only very creative, but also very effective, resulting in 80% decrease in the urinal spillage and 8% reduction of the cleaning costs!

The urinal fly is an elegant way to influence people’s decisions that often makes nudging look easy. In reality, designing effective nudges can be challenging, and recent studies show that nudges can be sometimes ineffective, or have very little economic or practical benefits.

So how can we design effective nudges?

Below, I will outline three important checks to consider when designing and implementing a nudge: these checks won’t make the nudge automatically work, but it will be a good start.

#1. One-shot or long-term?

One important question is whether you are trying to influence one-time decisions or decisions that occur multiple times. The answer to this question will give you a first hint to what type of nudge has the best chance to be effective.

Nudges influence decisions by appealing to a broad range of psychological processes and drives. For instance, since humans tend to avoid unnecessary effort, nudges that effectively reduce hassles and remove frictions are likely to be very effective. One of the best illustrations of ‘effort nudges’ is the double-sided printing default setting on printers. Compared to the situation where the user has to actively choose (effort!) for double-sided printing, making it a default option (no effort!) reduced paper use by 15%!

Other nudges play on emotions rather than effort. The famous piano stairs nudge is a good example of ‘emotional nudge’, because it triggers an emotional response (fun, novelty, surprise, excitement) in the passers-by. Another good example is the voting trash cans, which has been used effectively to reduce littering during a festival in Copenhagen. These nudges are based on the idea that novelty makes things more interesting and fun: if people feel amused by doing something novel, they will likely repeat that behavior. However, novelty is by definition temporary, and the effectiveness of emotional nudges typically wear off with time.

As a rule of thumb, emotional nudges can be effective if you want to influence people’s behavior in one-shot decisions, but are unlikely to have lasting effects. Nudges that remove frictions (effort nudges) - or that work by attracting people’s attention, like the urinal fly described above (saliency nudges), are more likely to be effective over time.

#2. Persuade or dissuade?

One of the most important dimensions of human behavior is a person’s motivational state, which can be either approach or avoidance. Approach refers to the propensity of a person to move toward a desired stimulus. Avoidance, on the contrary, indicates the propensity to move away from an undesired stimulus.

Nudges can therefore persuade people to engage in desirable behavior (approach) or rather dissuade people from engaging in undesirable behavior (avoidance). Turning cleaning and recycling into a 3-steps game for kids is an example of a persuasive nudge that taps on our approach motivation. Including a “PAY NOW!” red box to a reminder letter sent to taxpayers is a dissuasive nudge because it involves avoidance motivation - precisely, the motivation to avoid paying increasing costs if the payment is not carried out immediately. Another creative example of a nudge that targets avoidance motivation is this anti-smoke nudge.


So, which nudge is more effective? And how do we decide between a persuasive and a dissuasive nudge?

This decision depends in part on the specific behavior we want to influence. It is probably more effective to use a dissuasive nudge if the goal is to increase tax compliance or to increase the payment of fare-dodgers. However, the decision to use a persuasive or a dissuasive nudge depends on other factors as well. Nudges that are too dissuasive can elicit what psychologists call psychological reactance, which has been shown to reduce the effects of the nudge or even backfire. Plus, a very dissuasive nudge could have negative consequences for customer relationship and brand image.

To sum up, nudge designers should not only evaluate whether a nudge is effective in changing people’s behavior. The ‘tone-of-voice’ we decide to use will have consequences for how people feel about the decision, which in turn will affect their attitude towards the organization, the government, or the company that is implementing the nudge.

#3. General or tailor-made?

One common misconception is that all nudges are equally effective for everyone. This view has its roots in the assumption that people are passive when confronted with the nudge, and is embedded in how nudging is often described as a way of ‘steering’ or ‘shaping’ decisions.

Some types of nudges are indeed effective with most people because they appeal to fundamental psychological processes that are thought to be common to all human beings, and that are not much influenced by learning or social and cultural factors. For instance, the default option for double-sided printing is effective with most people because the tendency to avoid unnecessary effort is a rather universal human disposition. The urinal fly is effective because virtually all humans are attracted by salient and prominent stimuli.

Other types of nudges are more vulnerable to social and cultural differences. For instance nudges that emphasize reciprocity to improve tax compliance (e.g., ”Your tax facilitates access to social services and infrastructure. Together we build our nation.”) can be effective in countries where citizens have a positive attitude towards the government, but it may be ineffective (or even backfire) in countries where citizens do not trust the government.

To conclude, to be effective nudge interventions should always take into consideration the broader social and cultural context in which the nudge is implemented. More concretely, nudge designers should (when possible) gather as much information as possible on the social and cultural context (e.g., age groups, level of education, moral values, religion, etc.) and design nudges that are tailored to the specific target group.

Designing nudges that are effective and impactful for your organization

In conclusion, designing and implementing effective nudge interventions can be challenging. Making your nudge work depends on several factors, including the nature of the target behavior, the psychological processes involved in the people’s decision, as well as the broader cultural and social context. In addition, the way the nudge is implemented can impact the perception that customers, citizens, or employees have of an organization. Knowing how to tweak these factors is a crucial not only for making effective nudge interventions, but also for improving the image of your organization.

Discover further inspiration in the Case section of our website.

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