Thirsty for more expert insights?

Subscribe to our Tea O'Clock newsletter!


The decision-making process: an overview - Part 4: Nudging: the mechanisms of influence

Sabrine Hamroun
Published on
Have you ever hesitated to buy an item before being immediately convinced by the magic sentence, “I’ll give you a special deal on it” from the vendor? If this situation feels familiar to you, you were probably influenced by a specific technique, nudging. This article will present a brief introduction to this concept as well as examples of real-world applications.

What is nudging? 

Nudging is a concept commonly used in economics and decision-making science. First popularized by the book "Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness" written by Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein, it represents the different interventions and mechanisms used to influence decision-making and drive it toward the desired option. These interventions, at once simple and subtle, are meant to influence one's behavior (sometimes subconsciously) without forcing it. Such techniques do not include law-induced behaviors, such as smoking bans.

How does nudging work?

1- Nudging and decision-making mechanisms

Nudging mainly works because we tend, as decision-makers, to use heuristics (that are not necessarily thoroughly thought through) that help make choices. These heuristics are called cognitive biases. Among these heuristics, let us cite: 

  • The Status quo effect: individuals might prefer things to stay as they are and, therefore, avoid trying to move on to a new state, even if said new state could be more beneficial to them. In order to orient a behavior towards a specific choice, nudgers might set the option they want a nudgee to choose as default, with the possibility to opt-out to the alternative option.
  • The Anchoring effect: as decision-makers, we don’t evaluate our options in an absolute sense but rather make relative evaluations based on their context. More specifically, we compare the value of an option to a reference point. Such a reference can be an “anchor.” For instance, when buying a T-shirt, you might think that 50€ is a high price. Now imagine that on the t-shirt ‘s tag, the previous price of 62€ is crossed out and changed to 50€. You might now think this is a good deal you should not miss. The previous price worked as an anchor, and your evaluation of the 50€ is now relative to it. Therefore, it switched the price perception from an exaggerated one to an enticing deal.

2- Personalize nudging policies for targeted groups 

Nudge policies may work better when adapted to a targeted group, for instance, customers hesitating to buy a new product. One way to define this targeted group is by using machine-learning techniques like scoring, an algorithm that gives a score to a specific observation based on its criteria. For instance, consider a fashion website. By analyzing visitor activity (items viewed, time spent per item, frequency of visits, purchase history, etc.), we can define a score for a visitor’s likelihood of buying a new item they viewed on the website but have yet to purchase. The score is calculated by comparing the visitor’s navigation criteria to those of others on the website and by determining if other customers with similar profiles bought the product.

Based on their interest score, a client will be targeted (or not) by marketing campaigns. If their score is very low, the visitor is likely not interested in the item at all, and therefore, there is no need for targeting. Contrastingly, if their score is very high, they will likely purchase without requiring extra marketing actions. Instead, the brand will focus on visitors with medium scores, those who cannot decide whether to buy. These profiles will be targeted by marketing campaigns to nudge their behavior toward making a purchase. The nudging can take the form of personalized emails, including special offers about the item they checked, for instance.

What are some examples of nudging?

Nudge techniques are widely used in different fields: public policy, health, sustainability, and marketing, to name a few. Below, we will describe a few specific examples.

1- Nudging towards healthier food choices

In a social experiment, the iNudgeYou, a Danish applied behavior science center, helped people eat healthier. In a company restaurant, they noticed that food was presented in consistent quantities: large pieces of cake and whole apples, making people eat too much cake (94 grams on average per person) rather than apples (13 grams on average per person). They decided to cut the food into smaller pieces. As a result, people started to load their plates with a mix of cake and apples, leading to an increase in the quantity of apples (20 grams on average) and a decrease in the quantity of cake consumed (61 grams instead of the original 94 grams). It can, sometimes, be as simple as that!

2- The Call-to-action button

When browsing a website, people tend to first broadly scan it before going to the section that interests them. In Western cultures, a website is usually scrolled from the top to the bottom, from the left to the right. Therefore, the right-low section is checked last; this is why call-to-action buttons (subscribe, book now, make a reservation…) are typically placed there.

3- Default opt-in options

Setting the targeted option as default is a commonly used tool for nudging in different fields. For instance, it has been proven to increase organ donation rates among the population. Combining experimental tests and real-world data, this paper highlights the impact of setting the organ donor status as the default option to increase the donation rate. This process was far more effective than other policies experimented with. For instance, in the Netherlands, a massive national educational campaign was conducted to encourage people to register for organ donation, yet, the consent rate remained low (27.5%), much lower than in European countries using the default opt-in option (e.g. >99% in France).

The UK government used the same technique to enhance employees' enrollment in the retirement savings program. The effect was particularly remarkable for workers with the lowest income. This category, struggling to be financially stable in the short term, prioritizes immediate financial security over the importance of long-term investment in retirement savings. Consequently, only 22% of this category had a retirement saving program before the default opt-in policy, compared to more than 90% after the default opt-in policy.

Are nudge techniques universal?

When using nudging techniques, one might tend to rely directly on behavioral science insights. However, these insights themselves can be biased, as they are based on studies and research performed on WEIRD (Western Educated Industrialized, Rich and Democratic) populations most of the time. This cohort only represents about 12% of the world, yet makes up about 80% of the conducted studies.

As these cognitive and behavioral mechanisms studies are biased by the restricted population they examined, they cannot be systematically generalized to other populations with different cultural specificities; cultural and socio-demographic specifications must be taken into account. Nudging cannot be efficient by just simply applying behavioral and cognitive findings. Instead, it requires a deeper understanding of the context of its application as well as the targeted group.

Applying ethics and regulations to nudging

As previously detailed, nudging employs subtle techniques to impact human behavior and drive it toward a targeted choice. As a general tool, it can be employed to benefit the targeted consumer (like the case described above, applied to healthy food consumption). By contrast, it can be used to trick the nudgee into undesired behaviors that primarily benefit the nudger. These techniques are called dark patterns. These patterns include default-ticking automatic renewable subscriptions within forms, for instance, relying on the status-quo bias. Another harmful technique also used in online choice architecture is sludge. The opposite of nudge, sludge aims to develop a complex and exhausting consumer path on a given website to dissuade them from taking an action, e.g., to discourage a visitor from unsubscribing to a program.

These dark patterns emphasize the ethical and regulatory norms that should be respected when using these techniques. Such a topic is quite controversial, as a nudger’s methods and intentions can be as subtle as they are difficult to define. 

From a regulatory perspective, several countries are working on regulations defining the limits of nudging techniques. For instance, since April 2021, the CNIL states that websites collecting user data through cookies should no longer be the default. Instead, each user must explicitly consent to data collection, ending decades of data collection based on the status-quo effect. 

Although the use of behavioral science and ethical nudging is still being debated, some guidelines exist to help behavioral scientists perform their job ethically, like the “Nudge FORGOOD framework”. As described in this video by its co-designer Liam Delaney, this framework states that nudgers should consider their work’s ethical aspects: Fairness, Openness, Respect, Goals, Opinions, Options and Delegation.

The Nudge “FORGOOD” framework. Source

All articles

Related articles

The decision-making process: an overview – Part 3: Decision-making under risk

05 mins
Sabrine Hamroun

The decision-making process: an overview – Part 2: Human decision-making: a rational process?

05 mins
Sabrine Hamroun

The decision-making process: an overview – Part 1: Contextual impact and choice

9 mins
Sabrine Hamroun

Thirsty for more expert insights? Subscribe to our monthly newsletter.

Discover all the latest news, articles, webinar replays and fifty-five events in our monthly newsletter, Tea O'Clock.

First name*
Last name*
Preferred language*
Merci !

Votre demande d'abonnement a bien été prise en compte.
Oops! Something went wrong while submitting the form.