Is environment everything?

As we go about our days, whether at work, in the grocery store or browsing the web, tiny cues continually influence our behavior—many times without us even knowing. Called “nudges,” these suggestions aren’t overt but they are significantly changing our actions and choices. 

If you’ve never heard of nudges or “nudge theory,” the behavioral economics concept that explains how and why these nudges work, you’re not alone. And for the companies that employ nudge theory to help increase their bottom lines, people’s cluelessness about nudging is actually ideal. But there are ways that nudge theory can encourage people toward healthier behaviors, both for themselves and the environment, as well as improve their likelihood to stick to good habits.

Here’s a breakdown of nudge theory to help increase your general awareness of the concept and show you how it can benefit you and the world around you. 

Nudge theory definition

First, let’s dive into the definition of nudge theory a little deeper. Nudge theory hinges on the idea that if you shape the environment around people in a certain way, you can influence the choices they make. 

For example, if you want students to make healthier choices, banning junk food on campus is not always ideal. Instead, you might replace the food available in vending machines, providing different choices. The key is influencing behavior in a subtle way, so that people won’t realize that they’re being pushed toward making one choice over another. This is as true for junk food as it is for economic incentives in larger society.

This theory of indirecting suggesting is used not only in behavioral sciences and economics but also in political and social theory. With nudging designed by a behavioural insights team or institution, people still feel like they have control over their own decisions and retain a freedom of choice. So, overt advertising, pressuring someone’s decision making process or otherwise flaunting a certain choice would not be considered nudging. 

Nudge theory has long been used in society but it was popularized as a concept by behavioral economist Thaler and Sunstein, legal scholars that released their 2008 book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, available through Yale University Press. 

What exactly is a nudge?

A nudge is anything that alters someone’s decision making or behavior in a predictable way—without taking away their options or incentivizing certain choices in a meaningful way. By changing the environment, a nudge makes it more likely that a person will make one choice over another when their brain’s cognitive processing automatically selects the favored choice. 

To understand how this works, it’s important to understand human decision making. People will often do things that they know are not in their best interest, even when we are aware of that fact. In many cases, we act based on whatever is put in front of us. Especially when we are tired or pressed for time, we’re more likely to make decisions based on our immediate environment rather than fully thinking about how a given decision lines up with our goals and values.

In some situations, this is great. We might be encouraged to make a choice that’s actually better for us or better for society – think opt-out organ donation as opposed to opt-in. Nudges have historically been helpful for improving decisions about health, as we’ll soon discuss that in more detail However, in other situations, nudges may be detrimental, especially in situations where they encourage people to spend more money than they otherwise would have. 

You might encounter the term “libertarian paternalism” in these sorts of discussions, which is the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for institutions to affect behavior while also respecting freedom of choice. Libertarian paternalism acts as a sort of middle ground between the extremes.

Different types of nudges

There are a number of different types of nudges (sometimes referred to as a “nudge unit,”) each of which alters people’s behavior by altering the “choice architecture” around us – all without us knowing. That said, once you know about nudge theory you will likely become more aware of when and how you are being nudged.

Here are the most common types of nudges:

Setting a default option

Typically, people won’t deselect a default option to choose something else. So when a certain option is intentionally selected as the default, this increases the chances that people will “choose” it, just like the organ donation example described above.

Making certain options easier or harder to select

This one depends on the level of ease when choosing certain options. For this nudge, either the so-called “good” option is easier for people to choose or the so-called “bad” option is harder to choose. This steers people toward selecting the good option. 

Making certain options more noticeable

Another way nudging can encourage people to choose a good option over a bad one is to make the good option more noticeable or the bad option less noticeable. This attracts people’s attention toward the good option, making them more likely to select it. 

Creating influence with a crowd

The idea that other people are doing something is a strong psychological anchor. People like to do what’s considered popular or what other people are doing. We want to follow social norms, even if we aren’t consciously aware of that drive. This sphere of influence isn’t just focused on what people close to us or what people we admire do but what people in general tend to do. 

Sending a reminder

This nudge may seem a little more overt but it’s not taking away people’s freedom of choice. These reminders might come in the form of your doctor sending you an email to remind you to make your yearly checkup appointment. This reminder increases the chances that you will make that appointment. 

Real Life Examples of Nudge Theory 

Talking about nudge theory theoretically is one thing. But it makes more sense when you see how it’s put into practice in various aspects of daily life. These real life examples of nudges in action will show you how this behavioral science theory works.

In the workplace

Reducing meeting time: By capping meeting times, people are more productive (because they have more time for deep work) and they are less likely to talk casually and waste those precious minutes, making the meeting time more meaningful. 

Offering fewer waste baskets and printers: If you only have one trashcan and one printer per office floor, people have to exert more energy to throw things away and to print things, respectively. This helps create less waste overall. 

Installing creative carpeting for open floor plans: When people aren’t in individual cubes, privacy can be tough. Some offices in the UK government actually install half circle shapes of carpet in a color that’s darker than the rest of the floor’s carpet under people’s work stations. The shape is big enough to create a small “island” for each worker’s desk and chair, plus a little extra. This helps discourage other people from hovering over their coworkers’ desks. Having a visual demarcation of space allows people to feel less crowded by others and like they have more privacy. 

Putting up inspirational posters and photos: Installing thoughtful quotes or images of inspirational people can influence behavior for the better. These subliminal messages encourage employees to follow the words they see or act more like the people in the photos. (You might also see inspirational posters and photos in schools and in doctors’ offices.)

Offering an on-site gym or workout classes: Giving people a way to move their bodies during the day can not only encourage healthy habits but also influences workers to come into the office earlier or stay later so that they can use the facilities. For that matter, offering catered lunches or an on-site cafeteria also nudges people toward eating in the building (or at their desks), especially when the food is paid for by the company. 

In society

Charging for plastic bags: When it costs you 10 cents for a grocery bag, you are less likely to ask for one. 

nudge theory definition
(Ariel Skelley / Getty)

Changing the placement of healthy food ideas: When candy is swapped out for nutritious items at the grocery checkout counter, people are often more inspired to buy healthy snacks.

Encouraging recycling with size: Trash services giving customers a small trash bin and a larger recycle bin can decrease waste and encourage recycling. 

Offering renewable energy as the default: When energy companies offer renewable energy as a default option on their websites, people are more likely to sign up for that service. 

Decorating stairs to encourage exercise: In Sweden, the popularity of stairs painted like piano keys led to the installation of similar stairs in Milan and Istanbul. At Utah Valley University, campus stairs were decorated to show how many calories you can burn by walking up them.

In businesses

Highlighting most popular choices: You’ll see this on Amazon when certainly products are highlighted as “Amazon’s Choice.” Language like “x number of people also have this item in their carts” also encourages purchases when online shopping.

Reducing plate sizes: Restaurants can choose slightly smaller plate sizes to reduce food waste and overall costs—without lowering their prices. Typically customers will not notice this small change. 

Installing arrow stickers on floors: These arrows on store floors can lead people to certain items or displays that a business wants people to buy.

Encouraging food upgrades and combo meals: Fast food restaurants prominently offer combo meals to influence people to buy more. You might also remember hearing the phrase “Do you want to Supersize that?” every time you order from a popular fast food chain. 

Nudging Yourself

Yes, you can nudge yourself to make better choices, particularly when it comes to improving decisions about health. While you will be aware of the nudges, these cues can encourage you to make healthier decisions or more easily accomplish goals that you’ve set for yourself (and for your family). 

Here are a few strategies for applying nudge theory to influence your own “good” behavior:

  • Placing healthy snacks in an easy-to-access drawer or cabinet, or leaving fresh cut fruit on the kitchen counter (Put cookies and sweets in harder to reach places.)
  • Setting time limits of your phone for certain websites or apps 
  • Offering a reward for kids to complete homework or chores
  • Putting up visual chore charts and calendars so that everyone can see them
  • Putting your dental floss next to your toothbrush to encourage you to both floss and brush every day
  • Laying workout clothes out the night before so you put them on first thing in the morning and actually do your workout
  • Keeping phone out of reach when you don’t want to use it (i.e. put it in another room while you watch TV or plug it in somewhere not next to your bed so you don’t read for it first thing in the AM)
  • Wearing a fitness watch that reminds you to stand with a vibration or beep alert at hourly intervals
what is nudging
(Oscar Wong / Getty)

What’s in a nudge?

As you now know, nudge theory is a concept in behavioural economics that proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions. Some people are critical of nudge theory, especially as it relates to business practices of encouraging people to spend more money—basically influencing people to act in the company’s best interest instead of their own. 

However, there are a number of ways that a mere nudge can be used to help people make better choices for themselves, for others and for the planet without having to be guilted or pushed into doing so. Because of that, nudge theory remains an important tool for improving decisions, especially when it comes to public health and safety.