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Why Nudges are Seldom Enough

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Nudges are a key and growing mechanism for an approach to social transformation and behaviour change marketing, other wise referred to as ‘liberal paternalism’ popularised by Thaler and Sunstein in their  book Nudge. The term ‘behavioural economics’ is used to encapsulate this approach but in reality, their thinking draws on a mixture of social-psychology, sociology, economics, design and communication science. A central tenet of the position is that most large behavioural issues faced by society stem from a combination of personal preference, or choice, and a mix of environmental cultural and economic factors.

There is now a growing body of evidence from many disciplines that people do not always act in an economically logical/rational way e.g. we do not always act in a way designed to maximise our own advantage, toilet rolls aside.  Most people, more of the time, do not dispassionately analyse their behavioural decisions. Many decisions are processed by what Thaler and Sunstein call ‘mindless choosing’. Via our automatic system one brain.

In addition to the power of mindless choosing, we use a broad scope of scientific and economic concepts that can guide people with the responsibility for developing or designing choice situations. These ‘Choice constructs, we refer to as choice  Architecture include concepts such as social proof, discounting, overconfidence, the power of loss, representation, framing, the power of temptation, anchoring etc. to craft successful ‘Nudges’.

Whilst these concepts are not new they do allow the skilled and experienced to use these deep understanding of human behaviour to design interventions, sales and marketing to  design ‘Nudges’ that have a high level of predictability and a good chance of success .  The hallmark of this kind of paternalism is a focus not on tackling the determinants of issues such as obesity, or alcohol misuse by punishing ‘bad’ behaviour or by nagging people about what they should do. Rather, the focus is on incentivising positive choices by creating the conditions, social pressure, systems, or environments in which people want to make choices for their own benefit, to have to make little effort to ‘choose’ a personal and socially desirable course of action.

This locates responsibility with individuals but also with providers of public services, NGOS’s and private organisations, to create the choice architecture that will nudge people in the ‘right’ direction. Nudges can also be designed and implemented in such a way that they are cost effective. A key part of the Nudge agenda is to find low cost interventions that produce high value returns. Thaler and Sunstein’s concept of ‘Nudging’ people into different behaviours encompasses interventions that are: Easy and cheap to avoid. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not. Nudges are not mandates. In our recent work with a charity we deployed nudges to support fund raising and commitment to donate, with great success.


It is also clear that in many circumstances Nudging people into better health or away from criminality will seldom be enough to result in population-level improvements because in many situations, evidence and experience make it clear that there is a need for other forms of intervention. Therefore, nudges should be seen as a helpful part of the solution, activators of behaviours over sustainers but not a magic bullet.

What is the Goose that lays the golden egg?

Well in short there isn’t one single factor, yet a key factor is to ensure whatever is offered is based on something that is valued or seen as a deterrent or significant cost by the specific target audience. Rewards or penalties need to resonate with the intended target audience. The same is true for negative exchanges. For example, imposing a penalty fine that is set at a rate that the audience does not consider high enough when they believe that there is little chance of being caught, will probably not bring about the desired change.

In addition, some exchanges are ‘Active’ and some are ‘Passive’. According to their advocates, Nudges are ideally passive exchanges. An active exchange is one where people engage in a rotational assessment of the exchange, weighing up the pros and cons of the benefits and costs. This process has the added benefit of developing critical judgement capacity and in so doing can assist in many other life choice areas.  A passive exchange is one where people make a decision to act based on more intuitive response, such as environmental prompts, or a scheme unless the actively opt-out.

The ‘Value/Cost, Exchange Matrix’ is a way to represent the various forms of exchange that can be offered.  The Cost/Value Matrix is a conceptual device used to represent four different forms of interventions that can be employed to promote change in individuals and groups, ‘Nudge’, ‘Shove’, ‘Hug’ and ‘Smack’.
Most successful social interventions use a mix of these four. It should also be noted that the four forms of intervention are not absolutely distinct. The matrix is constructed using two axes, active and passive choosing, and positive and negative enforcement. In most circumstances what is required is a mix of interventions that work on both the active and passive mind sets and encompasses both rewards and penalties.

The assumption is that whilst ‘Nudges’ can be effective in some behaviours in some situations they are do not represent a full toolbox of possible forms of intervention. As well as Nudges, we can also use: Shoves, Hugs and Smacks.

The selection of which form of intervention or combination of intervention types should always be driven by evidence and target audience insight. Whichever combination of intervention types are selected there will be an on-going need to evaluate the impact they are having in terms of behaviour change. An on-going focus on the behaviour change ‘bottom-line’ will provide not only insight into effectiveness but also value for money and cost effectiveness information.

This will, over time, provide the information necessary to ensure that the most effective combination of approaches can be put in place and that ineffective and more costly forms of intervention are weeded out. It is not enough that Nudges, Smacks, Shoves or Hugs work; there is also a need to demonstrate that they are also good value for money.

The Social Marketing approach can and should be used to inform the development of all forms of intervention. Deep customer insight and market/user testing should precede the development of any form of Smack, Hug, Shove or Nudge.


Stuart Jackson, CEO and Founder Ice Creates.

ICE Creates is a UK leader in human factor design and regularly uses the power of behavioural marketing that includes nudges and sophisticated choice architecture, all crafted to impact social good. We are proud to play our part in building a well, confident, and resilient

We will not settle for second best; we inspire and build ways of work that bring fresh energy, creativity and growth for people and our planet.  

 Simply put, we call it  make better happen

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