Every marketing attempt is an attempt to influence behavior. Nudging is one effective tool to influence consumer and public behavior.
From a behavioral engineering point of view, nudging, incentivizing, gamifying can have some overlaps, but for now, let’s simplify nudging as guiding behavior, incentivizing as motivating a behavior with a reward, and gamification as driving engagement using game-like features that create a sense of continuous reward.
- Example: Reducing litter
- Example: Increasing purchases
- Example: Fly in the urinal
- People can be “nudged” to behave in a desirable way
- 4 types of nudges
- Case study: Improving student learning
- Choosing appropriate Nudges
- Types of behavior that need nudging
- How to construct good nudges
- Examples of powerful behavioral nudge opportunities
Example: Reducing litter
The Caramel + Green Footprint Experiment conducted in 2011 on the streets of Copenhagen by Pelle Hansen and his students used a simple nudge to reduce litter on the streets. They handed out free caramel in wrappers to pedestrians. Then, they counted how many wrappers were thrown on the street. Then they painted green footprints leading up to street trashcans to nudge passers-by to follow the prints to throw the wrappers in the bin. The experiment was widely successful – the footprints reduced wrappers on the street by 46%.
Example: Increasing purchases
If you go on Amazon to shop, you’ll see there is usually a combo sell at the bottom saying “Buy it with.”
Amazon’s nudge “Buy it with” uses associations between products and a direct call to action to influence people to buy an extra product others have bought frequently.
Example: Fly in the urinal
Richard Thaler, a behavioral economist who won the Nobel prize for his nudge theory in 2017, speaks about Jos Van Bedaf, manager of the cleaning department at the Amsterdam Schipol Airport, who used a clever nudge to get male passengers to keep the urinals clean. He painted the insides of each urinal pot with a small dead fly. His idea was to give men a target to aim at so there was less spillage outside. It was cleverly placed to minimize spillage – and it worked. This behavioral nudge says nothing but guides behavior automatically.
Why not a butterfly instead of a fly? Jos Van Bedaf thought if it looked pretty, people wouldn’t want to pee on it. But since a dead fly is universally disliked, people would pee on it.
People can be “nudged” to behave in a desirable way
Most successful companies know this – the audience can be influenced to make certain choices. That is the function of a nudge – to influence decisions strategically. The nudge ranges from simple design elements to almost explicit instructions. So technically, a nudge is a contributing factor that pushes a potential consumer to buy a product or increases people’s compliance to a policy.
Ethically speaking, most nudges aim to improve the environment, comply with public policy, reduce human error, get users to maximize their product’s usage, increase health and safety behavior, decrease risky behavior, or consume more for profits. Generally, nudges benefit someone – be it a brand, a consumer, a population, or the government. And when nudges fail at these, they are typically considered “bad design elements.”
Nudges, in the more traditional sense, are hints and motivators that push a person to behave desirably. COVID-19 messaging was primarily nudging “safety” and “health” behaviors.
Nudges are typically used for public policy to change the attitude of a large population so they engage in behaviors the government wants. But more informally, nudges are used in apps, educational and work contexts, restaurants, and everyday e-commerce.
But…. nudging, like all things, can fail. In a nudge study during Covid-19, people were nudged to sanitize their hands at a store entry using a dispenser. 2 types of nudges were used and compared to a no-nudge control group. The nudging did not increase hand-sanitizing. Researchers suspect the nudge was by itself ok, but the behavior of sanitizing had reached an un-nudgeable state. People already sanitized their hands a lot, so there wasn’t much wiggle room to increase sanitizing frequency.
I’ve done 2 projects on nudges. One was for pharmaceutical messaging, and the other was for school children delivered via an app. In the pharmaceutical project, my goal was to use specific wording that resonates with an audience so they are more likely to pay attention to an advert. In the school project, my goal was to create messages a teacher sends to the school-going child’s parents to modify the child’s behavior.
In both cases, the commonality in all nudges is this – they are never explicit instructions or call-to-actions. Nudges make a certain behavior more likely to occur (or easy) via indirect means. But like instructions, each nudge has a clear goal to achieve.
To maintain classroom discipline, a teacher can explicitly tell students to wear clean clothes. This is an instruction. But, the teacher can instead nudge the students by saying, “Most people will pay more attention to you if you are wearing clean clothes.” This is a nudge. Both cases increase the desired behavior of wearing clean clothes. But the instruction gives a choice to obey or disobey. The nudge removes the choice.
These nudges typically take the form of words, but they also take the form of colors/visuals, sounds, and smells. For example, a great-smelling person can be literally “inviting” because it nudges another person to approach and talk. A clean-looking entrance to a bathroom can nudge the decision to poop or not.
4 types of nudges
Let me introduce a popular idea in marketing, psychology, and economics.
Researchers and Nobel prize winners Daniel Kahneman and Richard Thaler have analyzed different ways in which we make decisions. They have classified the decision-making process into 2 types of thinking – System 1 thinking (also called Type 1) and System 2 thinking (also called Type 2). Nudges are classified based on which system (1 or 2) gets engaged.
- System 1 (type 1) thinking is fast, automatic, habit-based, emotional, and intuitive. So, a type 1 nudge does not trigger thinking but engages habit and fast emotions.
Example: impulse buying good-looking pants while shopping for innerwear.
- System 2 (type 2) thinking is slow, deliberate, cognitive, and analytical. So, a type 2 nudge triggers thinking.
Example: Seeing a warning sign that makes you look around for danger along a trekking route.
In most cases of system 2 thinking, there is a system 1 sub-process, too. E.g., Fear-based decision-making is system 1, but it triggers system 2 to increase vigilance after the emotion has passed.
Nudges can also be directly obvious (called transparent) or so subtle that you don’t know you’ve been nudged (called non-transparent).
Combining both types with how transparent the intentions behind nudges are, we get 4 types of nudges described by researchers Robert J. Weijers, Björn B. de Koning, and Fred Paas in their paper.
|Type 1 nudge + transparent intention
Engages the fast, automatic system 1 thinking with clear nudges that give information about what is expected.
|Type 2 nudge + transparent intention
Engages the deliberate system 2 thinking with clear nudges that give information about what is expected.
|Type 1 nudge + non-transparent intention
Engages the fast, automatic system 1 thinking with unclear motives behind the nudges to guide behavior subconsciously.
|Type 2 nudge + non-transparent intention
Engages the deliberate system 2 thinking with unclear motives behind the nudges to guide behavior subconsciously.
The most common nudges, which are “prompts” via notifications and reminders, are Type 1 transparent nudges. But reminders with instructions and guidelines become Type 2 transparent nudges.
The green footprint nudge and fly-urinal nudge I spoke of earlier are transparent type 2 nudges if people wonder what it is and think about it. But they act as type 1 nudges if people aren’t aware of their actions.
The unchecked agree to terms and conditions option is a type 1 nudge that makes users accept T&C without reading. In contrast, the EU GDPR consent rule prohibited this approach to accepting cookies on websites to maintain user data privacy. They made opt-in compulsory as “giving active informed consent” (type 2 nudge) instead of opting-out by choice as “giving passive consent.” (type 1 nudge).
Summary: Type 1 nudges modify behavior without the person thinking. Type 2 nudges modify behavior by thinking. Both nudges first appeal to automatic processes, but only type 2 nudges engage effortful thought.
Case study: Improving student learning
Look at this case study for how a teacher can nudge students directly or indirectly to meet learning objectives.
|Type 1 (influence automatic behavior)
|Type 2 (influence thinking)
|Transparent (intention is clear)
|Giving a reference point for a passing grade and average score in a classroom
Objective: Raise scoring expectations.
|Asking to reflect on study material
Objective: Improve depth of learning.
|Non-transparent (intention is not clear)
|Red underlining with question marks
Qbjective: Bring attention to mistakes.
|Light background music while learning.
Objective: Reduce random chatter in the classroom.
Related: Consumer psychology for Marketers
Choosing appropriate Nudges
Nudges guide behavior, either automatically or by making the consumer think. When a consumer has to think, a cognitive burden is put on them. It’s the effort they have to take to make decisions. This is called cognitive load.
For example, in a supermarket, if all products have no branding, the decision is very hard if only price and nutrition are available details. The customer has to figure out a lot. This is high cognitive load. But if 10 different ketchup bottles are there and the customer makes Asian food, and the bottle says “perfect for Asian cuisine,” the decision is easy. This is low cognitive load.
The general idea using cognitive load of a situation is that Type 1 nudges, which appeal to quick thinking, work better when cognitive load is high. Type 2 nudges, which are slow thinking-oriented nudges, work better when cognitive load is low.
That means guiding behavior at an automatic level works well when people are already mentally occupied. And guiding behavior by thinking and analysis works well when people are idle. But this is not without exception. Like the Amazon nudge, which is a type 2 nudge in a high cognitive load situation.
A type 2 nudge when the customer has to think a lot may lead to overwhelming mental fatigue that makes the customer completely avoid the product/behavior that is being nudged.
|Type 1 nudge use cases
|Type 2 nudge use cases
|Road-discipline (automatic discipline)
|Road-discipline (evaluate scenarios)
|Public policy compliance
|Therapy and medical decisions
|Long-term habit formation like cleaning the room
Nudge researchers who described the 4 types – Robert J. Weijers, Björn B. de Koning, and Fred Paas – have created this decision matrix to choose the best type of nudge.
Types of behavior that need nudging
All behaviors can be classified as approach behaviors, avoidance behaviors, or ignore behaviors.
- Approach behavior means the nudge is supposed to get people to do a specific action.
- Avoidance behavior means the nudge is supposed to stop people from making mistakes and taking risks.
- Ignore behavior means the nudge is supposed to take attention away from something.
|Reduce trash on the footpath
|Foot-controlled trash can opener on a footpath
|Draw cute puppies on the sidewalk (who wants to throw trash at puppies?)
|Stop people from flocking on the corner of a hairpin road on a mountain that has a great scenic view
|Make parking inconvenient
|Plant large trees to block the view so no one stops for photos
|Increase on-time attendance at college
|Offer higher-speed internet for 30 minutes before lectures
|Cafeteria’s with large seating time-lock lounging beverages like coffees for students.
|Discourage link spam on forums
|Disable likes for posts containing links so people avoid using social proof to judge the content they will see after clicking the links
|Algorithms push content with links to the bottom of the feed
How to construct good nudges
The visuals and the wording of a nudge is not purely an artistic choice of words, sounds, and visuals. It is a precise marketing decision built on top of human psychology, economic incentives, the environment, and the context.
Some psychological concepts are excellent for creating your “nudge.” Utilize the following concepts.
- Social proof: Social proof is nudging people to buy based on popularity and proof that other customers are happy with a purchase.
For example: Brand XYZ is loved by 50,000 customers. This nudge can help your customer buy a product – any product – without speaking of the product.
- Framing effect: Framing is a way to construct a branding creative and message by bringing attention to specific gains, specific losses users avoid, cultural appeal for relatability, etc. Putting a positive spin on a negative idea (glass half-full vs. glass half-empty) is a framing nudge.
For example: A glass half-empty can make a user conserve water. A glass half-full can make a user consume the water without worry.
- Visuals – the framing effect also comes with design elements. In one study, depression-related messages for college students created different reactions from students based on the visuals showing recovery, treatment, or suffering. Recovery-related imagery created more positive emotions while suffering imagery created negative emotions.
- Culture – introducing cultural elements, dialects, and social idiosyncracies of a demographic nudge relatability
- Sounds – the type of sound used in a context – say jazz music – can nudge people to have a fine-dine experience.
- AND-OR manipulation: User choices depend on how options are presented, and one of the most common ones is using “and” + “or” combinations for nudging.
For example: do you want coke AND fries with it? vs. do you want coke AND nuggets with it? Using AND nudges the consumer to consume 2 things instead of 1 thing. The alternative is: do you want coke OR fries with it? That nudges the consumer to choose 1.
- Attribute substitution: Attribute substitution is a way to reduce the buyer’s decision-making effort by making them want a product because they love one single feature about it. Attribute substitution works by highlighting one single element that forms the basis for a decision about a product with many different elements.
For example: “The smartest digital experience inside your car” is a nudge to buy the car based only on one feature.
- Priming: Priming is a way to influence a buyer’s brain by giving some word, sound, smell, idea that influences future decisions.
For example: Imagery of cute-looking cows can increase user attention to milk products.
- Wishful thinking: If you give your audience a better future to imagine, they are likely to employ behaviors from a set of options that bring that future to them.
For example: Showing a perfume helps people get dates is a nudge to buy the perfume.
- Anchoring: Anchors are reference points people use to pass judgments and make decisions. They often answer – how much should I consume? how much is too much or too little? Etc.
For example: A bag of Cheetos can declare a serving size is 13 Cheetos to get people to consume around 13 at a time. Not that most people listen, do they?
Examples of powerful behavioral nudge opportunities
Nudge opportunities are everywhere. Here’s one I discovered a few days ago.
I prefer no onions and no tomatoes in my burgers. But most restaurants don’t respect this instruction when Zomato passes on the instruction to the restaurant as a part of my order. Sigh, being tired of removing the onions and tomatoes, I thought about forcing them to read the instructions. The opportunity I found was choosing “do not send cutlery” in the ordering process. In the Kitchen Order Ticket (KOT) and the bill, restaurants always look for the “no cutlery” option because they want to save their expenses. But, the customer’s food instruction appears right before the “no cutlery” option. This increases the likelihood of the chefs/managers reading the instructions.
Many such nudging opportunities are used for mass behavioral engineering.
- Reducing plate sizes to make small food portions look big.
- Smaller water cups to make patrons consume less water to reduce wastage in a restaurant.
- Forcing users to scroll through the entire Terms and Conditions to enable the Agree/Disagree check box to improve the chances of reading the T&C.
- Discouraging links to other websites on social platforms is a nudge to stay on the platform and make creators create content tailored to that platform.
- Compensation coupons from e-commerce and quick-commerce with an immediate expiry date nudge the consumers to re-order soon despite a bad experience.
And here’s one more to end the article.
Bird’s eye view
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Hey! Thank you for reading; hope you enjoyed the article. I run Cognition Today to paint a holistic picture of psychology. My content here is referenced and featured in NY Times, Forbes, CNET, Entrepreneur, Lifehacker, 10-15 books, academic courses, and research papers.
I’m a full-time psychology blogger, part-time Edtech and cyberpsychology consultant, guitar trainer, and also overtime impostor. I’ve studied at NIMHANS Bangalore (positive psychology), Savitribai Phule Pune University (clinical psychology), and IIM Ahmedabad (marketing psychology).
I’m based in Pune, India. Love sci-fi, horror media; Love rock, metal, synthwave, and pop music; can’t whistle; can play 2 guitars at a time.