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Delving into the Key Concepts of Nudge Theory

The nudge refers to a set of techniques that encourage the transition from intention to action. The term comes from English and can be translated as a "gentle push" - the idea of encouraging individuals to adopt a certain behavior without imposing it on them.

The theory of behavioral economics relies on a body of research that demonstrates that humans are not purely rational and calculating beings. Their works show that we make decisions that are sometimes irrational and influenced by our environment, emotions, culture, and experiences.

This theory assumes that despite having information (e.g., knowing that smoking is harmful to health), we continue to adopt behaviors that, rationally speaking, do not serve our own interest, that of society, or even that of the planet.

The influence of our emotions, others, and our environment leads to behaviors influenced by cognitive biases, meaning distortions in the cognitive processing of information.

There are hundreds of cognitive biases, such as our tendency to generalize and overlook specifics ("trains are always late!") or our inclination to notice details that confirm our beliefs ("another tissue on the floor, it's dirty!").

Based on this premise, the nudge leverages an understanding of our cognitive biases and the study of our behaviors to create incentives for adopting a certain behavior.

In essence, the nudge is a small (sometimes subtle) modification of our environment that influences the mechanisms of choice regarding a behavior.

The concept of nudge is based on the works of Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler, who received the Nobel Prize in Economics (equivalent) in 2017 for their research in behavioral economics.

It is a relatively recent concept, as Sunstein and Thaler's first book dedicated to the nudge was published in 2008!

What can we do with the nudge?

With the nudge, a wide range of actions is possible! Indeed, the palette of possible nudge actions is extensive, and it can bring about large-scale changes with small actions, symbolized by the concept of a "gentle push."

Therefore, this technique is of great interest to public organizations and also certain private companies seeking simple solutions to provoke changes in habits and behaviors.

Among the first historical users of the nudge are several governments, including those of Barack Obama and David Cameron in the United Kingdom, who used the nudge to promote the adoption of certain behaviors related to taxation, health, and road safety.

In the UK, a "nudge unit" under the name "Behavioural Insight Team" was created to work on various public projects, including tax collection, organ donation, and road safety.

Fewer speeding offenses in England thanks to the nudge

During their work on road safety, the English "nudge unit" was tasked with devising methods to reduce the rate of repeat speeding offenses.

By analyzing the fine letters sent to offending drivers, the agency conducted a test that involved adding two new elements to these letters: a recommendation for actions to avoid recidivism and a photo of the driver's car taken at the moment of the speed control.

The result? This small modification in the fine letter reduced the recidivism rate by 20%, increased the payment rate by 15%, and decreased the rate of legal proceedings by 40%.

The nudge can also prompt direct action, as seen with these "survey" ashtrays, whose playful appearance encourages people to participate in the "game" while reducing the number of cigarette butts thrown on the ground.

Direct nudge action with a survey ashtray

The nudge can also prompt direct action, as seen with these "survey" ashtrays, whose playful appearance encourages people to participate in the "game" while reducing the number of cigarette butts thrown on the ground.

Reducing energy consumption in the United States

In the United States, the company O-Power has developed a rather... special electricity bill for its customers under electricity contracts.

The concept? When you open your electricity bill, you will find your monthly consumption... and that of your neighbors, thanks to the average consumption of the neighborhood where you reside. It's a social incentive to compare yourself to your neighbors and, therefore, reduce your consumption, accompanied by a smiley face, more or less content depending on your performance in terms of consumption compared to your neighbors.

By implementing this nudge for its customers, the O-Power company observed a decrease in electricity consumption of 2 to 7%, depending on the implementation methods (source (Téléchargement, 0 KB)), equivalent to a total energy saving of 75 million dollars for households (source).

Less litter on the ground in Denmark

Since 2011, Denmark has been experimenting with nudges to encourage and promote responsible and virtuous behaviors.

In the same year, Danish students implemented a system of "green footprints" showing the path to trash bins, in order to encourage citizens not to litter on the ground.

A system of

A system of "green footprints" showing the path to trash bins, in order to encourage citizens not to litter on the ground.

According to Arte, this simple nudge allowed for a 40% reduction in the amount of waste found around the trash can during an experiment, compared to a stand-alone trash can.

How to implement a nudge?

As you may have understood, using a nudge means encouraging virtuous behaviors without coercion.

In this section, let's focus on the practical aspect of the nudge: what are the steps to follow in adopting a nudge approach?

  1. The analysis-conception step

    The first step in creating a nudge is to define the behavior or choice that you want to influence.

    In nudging, targeted small actions are seen to work best: it's better to avoid trying to nudge on a too broad theme such as "doing sports," as this behavior is determined by too many factors to handle.

    If we stick to the idea of "doing sports," it would be more interesting to analyze all the behaviors related to this practice and act on 1 or 2 micro-behaviors related to it.

    To do this, it will be necessary to analyze behaviors related to sports and select behaviors where a "gentle push" would be useful.

    In our example, promoting the use of stairs instead of elevators would be an interesting avenue to explore: it's a simple choice that influences many people and occurs frequently.

    The idea, therefore, is not to "force" users to take the stairs by condemning the elevator but to give that little "nudge" at the moment of decision-making, which can have a significant effect.

    Note that the analysis step may take time and require human resources: it requires observation, analysis, and reporting to determine the types of choices or behaviors that could be the subject of a nudge.

  2. The testing step

    There is no perfect roadmap to design a nudge: it all depends on the environment that influences the choices and behaviors you want to change. Some environments, habits, or infrastructures may hinder the implementation of a nudge. This is why the nudge must include a logic of testing: you need to stay agile and iterate on your hypotheses to test several techniques and find the winning combination.

    That being said, here are some nudge scenarios that can be implemented to test your hypotheses:

    • Changing the default choice - used when the behavior you are trying to change represents "the norm." By changing the default choice when presenting the choice, you reverse the norm. This technique has been used, for example, in several countries for organ donation.

    • Reminders - can be used when trying to influence a behavior over time that requires repetition, such as following a medical treatment or engaging in physical activity, for example.

    • Pre-set choices - are used when you want to intervene on actions where you believe that the choices usually made should change: it involves suggesting the different options for choice yourself.

    • The fun ingredient - is a technique that involves creating amusement or laughter in a situation to trigger a behavior. For more information, I invite you to watch the "The Fun Theory" campaign on YouTube carried out by Volkswagen in Stockholm.

    • Social norm - is a technique that plays on social comparison to induce behaviors. This is what OPower did by including neighborhood consumption on individual electricity bills.

    • Changing the presentation of information - allows highlighting information or incentives that are usually drowned out by other information present. For example, by coloring bike lanes in a certain color, cyclists are helped to better distinguish the lane from the road: it's an incentive to use it.

  3. The interpretation of results step

    Finally, the nudge must be analyzed to measure the results of the experiment.

    As for the design of the tests, there is no one-size-fits-all recipe to highlight the results, as situations involving nudges can vary greatly.

    However, it is essential to plan in advance the metrics that will be followed to validate the impact of the nudge: this can be measured in terms of attendance, adoption of an infrastructure, sign-ups for a service, etc.

    In cases where it would be challenging to isolate the "nudge" as the sole factor of improvement, it is advisable to replicate the experiment on a smaller scale, excluding other factors. Experimenting on a smaller sample will better highlight the impact of your nudge on the behavior change you desire.

Applying the nudge to ecological communication

At DK, we support all initiatives that encourage more virtuous behaviors for individuals and the planet.

In this sense, we believe that the nudge can have powerful effects and provoke real changes in virtuous behaviors. However, we also think that some changes need to be accompanied by broader communication to evolve.

The nudge is, above all, a tool at the service of communication, which allows achieving significant results with small changes.

In our field of ecological communication, many behaviors need to gradually evolve towards more virtuous choices, whether it's the use of ecological raw materials, the reduction of resources used, or collaboration with local businesses.

To achieve this and encourage businesses and citizens to adopt more virtuous behaviors, the nudge can be a very relevant technique, targeting a set of micro-behaviors that, when added together, form a significant piece of the puzzle.

Limits and criticisms of the nudge

The nudge can be a powerful tool. It is no coincidence that most public institutions and large companies are interested in it today (e.g., DITP), following the growing interest of leaders in behavioral economics theory.

However, some warnings, formulated by the authors of the nudge theory, Thaler and Sunstein, deserve to be emphasized.

  • The nudge can be manipulative - because anyone can implement a nudge, with good or bad intentions. There is even a word that describes the use of the nudge for selfish purposes, not centered on the user's interest: it's called "sludge."

  • The nudge must be transparent - meaning that people exposed to the nudge must be aware of it.

  • The nudge must be avoidable - it is by no means an obligation, and the person exposed to it must be free to choose not to follow it.

  • The nudge must be virtuous - meaning that it must serve individual or collective interests. It is not a method of self-promotion for profit purposes.

Conclusion on the nudge

Although it has recently emerged, the nudge has quickly gained popularity thanks to its adoption by some governments and companies, as well as the media attention received when Richard Thaler was awarded the Nobel Prize in Economics in 2017 for his work on behavioral economics.

The nudge, if used virtuously, can be a fantastic tool to encourage the transition from intention to action. It is also a cost-effective technique whose effects can be powerful and spread on a large scale.

To build an effective nudge, it is often necessary to go through three steps: analysis-conception, testing, and results analysis. The success of the nudge will also depend on the team's ability to focus on one or two specific behaviors rather than attempting to change a too complex set of random factors.

When applied virtuously, the nudge is also very suitable for ecological communication: it is a complementary tool that, with a little creativity, intensifies the transition from intention to action during a broader communication campaign.

Finally, the nudge aims to provoke virtuous behaviors. However, there are non-virtuous applications of the nudge that should not be

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