A Nudge, as discussed in this and this blog posting, is a subtle way of influencing. This technique drives behavior into a certain direction, without taking away one’s freedom of choice. This can be useful for many purposes such as increasing road safety, promoting healthy choices and to stimulate sales. In this posting, several types of nudges are discussed.

The social nudge

Humans are social beings and adjust their behavior (sub)consciously to be part of a group. Deviating from the group can give negative feelings. An example of the power of social influence is the Asch line test. In this experiment, participants answered questions in a group. The group was made up of actors who were part of the experiment. So, in reality, there was only one real participant. Participants saw pictures of different lines, like the ones on the right. Then each participant was asked to point out the same line as the example. In some cases, the actors purposely gave an obviously wrong answer, for example, answer B. Even though the participants noticed the answer was clearly wrong (they admitted to this later), they agreed with the rest of the group. Here the correctness of the answer was apparently less important than the desire to fit in with the group.

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A nudge can use these type of social influences to direct desired behavior. By making explicit what the majority does, others are tempted to do the same. The Dutch Tax office has used this strategy in a clever way by communicating that the majority of ‘people like you’ submit their tax forms on time. By portraying the desired behavior as the social norm, the number of people that submitted the forms on time increased by 10%. In comparison to the standard letter that did not mention the norm. In the digital marketing world, this nudge is also used quite frequently. For example, booking.com shows how many people are viewing a hotel ad, how often it has been booked that day and how desirable it is amongst customers.

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Who can score a 3-pointer here with a piece of trash?

The challenging nudge

In 1983 Johan Huizinga introduced the term homo ludens (Latin for playful human). This is the idea that humans have a need to integrate play elements into their lives. Our attention goes to challenging, interesting and funny things in our environment. A successful nudge, therefore, knows how to stimulate the desired behavior in an entertaining way. Like in the picture on the right, where throwing away trash has been turned into a challenge. The basketball net above the garbage can makes throwing away litter a fun activity. Another successful example is the piano stairs which convinces people to take the stairs as opposed to the escalator (see this video).

The laziness nudge

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Perhaps the opposite of a challenging nudge is the nudge that uses laziness. Everyone chooses the easy-way-out at certain moments. In such cases, we choose the most obvious option; the default. So by making the desired outcome the default, more people ‘choose’ this option. An example is that when people are automatically registered as organ donors, more donors are available in comparison to when this is not the default. Since this is quite a complex subject, of which many people don’t know what they want, they stick with the default.  Recently the Dutch government used nudging to make students more aware of their loans. By removing the option to request the maximum amount of money, the total of people that chose this option went from 69% to 34%. This shows that removing the easy option can force people to consider their options more carefully.

Recently the Dutch government used nudging to make students more aware of their loans. By removing the option to request the maximum amount of money, the total of people that chose this option went from 69% to 34%. This shows that removing the easy option can force people to consider their options more carefully.

The reciprocity nudge

Another effective tool for nudging is the feeling of reciprocity. This has been discussed in this blog posting about the 7 influence tactics of Cialdini. By voluntarily giving something to someone, that person gets a feeling of wanting to return a favor. This doesn’t have to be of the same value; it’s mainly the feeling of giving something back.

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A practical example is the peppermints that are often placed next to the bills in restaurants. Research has shown that this can lead to a 14% higher tip. The reciprocity principle is also common in online marketing. Examples are that you can claim a discount when you subscribe to a newsletter, you get free shipping if your purchase is above a certain amount and receiving a voucher after placing an order.

The feedback nudge

Since a lot of behavior is automatic, simply providing people with feedback can serve as a nudge. The feedback makes people aware of their behavior and pushes them into the desired direction. Receiving positive feedback gives a good feeling and serves as a reinforcer. A practical example of this are the speeding measures next to the road which display your current speed. When you drive the accepted speed, a green happy smiley is visible. However, when driving too fast, a red sad smiley appears. This approach works even better if money can be ‘earned’ each time the speed limit is not exceeded. Everyone (subconsciously) uses this way of influencing in their daily life to direct others. Read more about the types of feedback and the effects here and here.

Conclusion: small changes with BIG consequences

As discussed earlier, nudging can use social influences, challenges, laziness, reciprocity, and feedback. This may be a useful technique to improve road safety, healthier food choices or increase the sales of products. Which nudge is preferred depends on the context, targeted audience, and the desired effect. But remember that influencing tactics should be transparent – you should be able to justify the nudge! Since the freedom of choice does not get affected by nudging, it is simply a little push in the desired direction.


Want to know more about how your organization may benefit from nudging? Contact us here!

Or check out the workshop ‘How to Nudge’ – an educating and especially fun and interactive workshop crammed with inspiring examples where you can also develop effective nudges for your own organization.

For further reading on nudging: