Nudge Theory

I was on Three Counties radio today with Ronnie Barbour of ‘The One Show’ (TOOSH).  The topic was related to a BBC article that came out today – ‘Nudge not enough to change lifestyle.’  Here are some of the points I discussed:

What is Nudge Theory?

  • Nudge Theory originated in the US through the work of Professor Richard Thaler.

  • It was introduced to Britain in 2008 when David Cameron expressed an interest in the theory.

  • This led to the development of Number 10’s Behavioural Insight Team – ‘The Nudge Unit.’

  • Nudge Theory is about encouraging, or nudging, people to make healthier lifestyle choices without being ‘nannied’ and without losing freedom of choice.

  • Rather than trying to overtly ‘change’ people’s behaviour, the idea is to subtly direct people down a particular path by altering their environment.

  • At the core of the nudges concept is making healthier options more feasible, accessible, and appealing.

Why do we need Nudge Theory?

  • Humans have deeply ingrained unhealthy lifestyle habits that are not easy to change.

  • We have 2 ways of thinking – an automatic system and a reflective system.

  • Automatic thinking – effortless and uncontrolled – tends to govern our unhealthy choices.

  • Reflective thinking – requires effort, control, and awareness.

  • To overcome habit-induced barriers to change, ‘reflective’ thinking is needed (e.g. a conscious effort to do something different, such as eat an extra piece of fruit a day).

How can nudges be used?

  • iNcentives (i.e. as opposed to punishment or penalties, e.g. healthy food vouchers). We are loss averse – losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining something that makes you happy. Thus, rewards work better.

  • Understand mappings (e.g. help people map their options in order to make decisions that benefit them).

  • Defaults (e.g. design health interventions that people opt out of rather than opt in to).

  • Give feedback (e.g. inform people when they are doing well or how they might do better – again, this is based on rewards).

  • Expect error (e.g. offer relapse prevention strategies).

  • Structure complex choices (e.g. facilitate weighing up the pros and cons of different options).

Examples of a nudge theory as applied to health?

  • Fruit at eye level and chocolate at a lower level – increases cognitive effort – the “cost” of choosing chocolate is increased.

  • Altering the ‘default setting’ – people get salad with their meal unless they specifically ask not to have salad with their meal.

  • Opting out rather than in to organ donation.

Are nudges effective?

  • Simply asking the question, ‘do you want to quit smoking?’ has been found to encourage behaviour change.

  • Nudges are about long-term benefits – we won’t necessarily see them now.

  • Stages of change – a nudge can push us along those stages of considering or acting on change.

Fun examples of nudge theory in action:

  • Amsterdam airport – a motif made to look like a fly was embossed in the mend’s urinals –  an 80% reduction in ‘spills’ and overall greater cleanliness in the toilets.

  • Sweden – refer to nudge theory as “fun theory” – bottle bank fruit machine – game where people were invited to try and insert different colour glass into the correct hole – lights and sounds when they got it right.

  • Car Manufacturer – have installed piano stairs alongside escalators in underground travel systems to encourage people to walk and exercise more.  People love it!

  • Capture on camera the people who keep to the speed limit – entered into a lottery – the winning money would come from the people who were caught speeding.

Any questions?  Please don’t hesitate to ask.


Categories: Health, Psychology

Tags: , ,

2 replies

  1. Thanks for a very nice bullet-outline of your main points on nudging, most of which I agree with:)

    However, I do not fully agree with your equation of the Nudge approach to behavioral change and Fun Theory – FunTheory is overlapping, but not quite the same for reasons discussed here:

    and here

    Finally, it is important to notice that Thaler and Sunstein do not argue for opt-out system for registering for organdonation but for “prompted choice”. In fact, I tend to see opt-out as an ethically problematic solution, cf:


  1. Government Nudges: Health of the Nation « healthpsychologyconsultancy

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