Behavioural Nudges: Fad or Fixture?


Show Me the Science Behind Behavioural Nudges!

It all started with a fly and an attempt to reduce misplaced urine… but now behavioural nudges seem to be the hot topic in business, government, research and beyond. So, is it just a fad or will nudges really stick?

The idea is simple, a nudge is a way of subtly influencing others’ behaviours in a predictable way. More specifically, a nudge is “any aspect of the choice architecture [i.e., how choices are presented] that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008, pp. 6).

Nudges have not only been credited with reducing bathroom clean-up, but they’ve saved lives, time and money, too. It would seem that organisations, researchers and governments around the world are finding that nudges really work, but why? It’s time to SHOW ME THE SCIENCE!

Let’s break the science down from a couple of key perspectives: economics and cognitive neuroscience.

The Economist’s Approach

Traditional economic principles are based on the idea that homo sapiens can be considered “homo economicus”, carefully and objectively weighing all relevant evidence before making a decision. This objective theory of decision-making is known as Expected Utility Theory, and while it sounds ideal, let’s pause for a moment and consider: when was the last time you objectively weighed up ALL relevant evidence before making a decision?

Despite the heavy employment of this economic theory for centuries (it originated in the early 18th century), ask any average Joe and they’d likely tell you that most of their decisions are not made based on a careful and objective weighing-up of all of the facts. More likely, things like mood, tiredness, previous experiences, and beliefs guide us towards less than objective choices. But it wasn’t until the late 1970’s that economic research started to catch up. 

In 1979, Kahneman and Tversky famously showed that we don’t actually make totally objective decisions. Instead of pure objectivity, we tend to frame our decisions relative to our current state, known as Prospect Theory. This seemingly less rational approach to decision-making can sometimes make a lot of sense, since satisfying our present self usually brings us immediate happiness or satisfaction, but what about the long-term?

When making decisions relative to our current state meant self-preservation for our ancestors, it was a good thing, but since our world has changed so much, this “current self” satisfaction-seeking sometimes means our own decisions conflict with our own long-term interests, like skipping a morning gym session for a sleep-in, despite our goal to lose 10kg or staying up late binge-watching Netflix when we have an 8 o’clock meeting the next morning.

When faced with complex prediction problems, people often rely on simple rules-of-thumb--known as heuristics--to help them. Surprisingly, these heuristics are actually quite bad at correctly predicting longer-term outcomes (like how much we’ll regret skipping the gym for some sleep-ins once beach-season rolls around). In fact, the use of these heuristics often leads us to make predictable errors.

For example, people often guess that in the United States today gun deaths by homicide are more frequent than gun deaths by suicide, but in truth the latter are about twice as common. This assumption comes about because homicides are more publicised than suicides, and thus more “available” in our memory. Reverting to what’s available saves us time and energy, helping us to satisfy our current self, but creating a cognitive bias--systematically leading our decisions and behaviours away from objective truth and towards our subjective reality.

When asked to make this guess about gun deaths, we could stop what we’re doing, whip out our phones, open the web browser, do a google search, read some US government gun-use statistics, find the rates for homicides and suicides, do some quick mental math and then respond... but most of us would prefer to save time and energy. So instead, our brain tends to recall recent gun-related news headlines we’ve read or anecdotes we’ve heard from friends--whatever’s available and relevant--and uses those tiny bits of information to help us piece together a quick decision that allows us to get on with our day, even at the cost of objective accuracy.

Cognitive biases might help us save time and energy, but they aren’t necessarily in our best interests. That’s where behavioural nudges come in. It’s in the gaps between satisfying our current selves and catering to our long-term interests that our predictable cognitive biases provide openings for behavioural nudges to work.

The Cognitive Neuroscientist’s Approach

Despite our belief that our senses show us the world as it truly is, the truth is that our brains did not evolve to provide us with an accurate representation of the world. Instead, our brains have evolved to ensure our survival… and perhaps surprisingly, this does not require the use of a perfectly  accurate representation!

Take optical illusions as a key example. This image isn’t moving:


You know that this image isn’t moving, yet I bet while ever you’re moving your eyes across it, you can’t make it stay entirely still, can you? How strange! So even though you know there is no movement, you see it anyway. In fact, it's the same for our cognitive biases! Even though you know a bias is wrong, you will still fall for it over and over again because of the way your brain is wired!

Our brains are primed to detect things that help us stay alive in a vast, wild world (like certain kinds of movement, particular colours, etc.), yet our world has changed much faster than these cognitive processes have evolved. This means that in a number of cases, our “old-world” brain misinterprets or misrepresents parts of our modern, complex world. 

This misinterpretation doesn’t just stop at vision, it can also impact us in more subtle ways, like emotions. Take, for example, Dutton and Aron’s famous “Rickety Bridge” experiment where men were more attracted to a woman when they met her on a shaky bridge than on a solid bridge. In this case, the brain provided a “misattribution of arousal”-- the idea being that the men attributed the arousal of being on a shaky suspension bridge not to the bridge, but to the woman! In essence, these men’s brains misrepresented their environment in a way that meant they weren’t able to know where their own emotions were coming from.

We fall “victim” to these misinterpretations not because we’re lazy or stupid, but because our brain is setup in such a way that makes these types of thoughts and behaviours natural. And because research has told us this about the brain, we can use that understanding to start to predict what we’ll choose or how we will behave in certain situations. It’s this predictability that allows people to create effective behavioural nudges.

The Verdict

From where I stand, the science is pretty clear: we’re biased beings, whether we like it or not. And we’re not likely to change anytime soon. But that’s not the end of the story. While simply accumulating more knowledge or improving our understanding of nudges can’t fix our cognitive biases, better knowledge and understanding can help us to be more aware and introspective about our motivations for our behaviours and choices. Learning about behavioural nudges, and the science behind them, empowers us to harness these tools in ways that allow us to help those around us, too. By learning more, we can nudge others to think, do and be better humans who have the tools to strive for rewards beyond the short-term.

Inspired to improve your own understanding and harness the power of behavioural nudges? The Future Minds Lab team offers both standard and bespoke workshops to help organisations and individuals better understand behavioural nudges and harness their power to improve employee and organisational outcomes, like better safety, more efficiency, and reduced expenditure. To find out more, check out our Behavioural Nudges Workshop or learn how we can help your organisation to nudge better behaviour.

Annaliese McGavin