A Little Nudge

“Appreciate the people that don’t judge,
but rather nudge you in the right direction.”

When I was younger my mother simply had to begin a question with two words, and she immediately received my full attention.  Later I would get married, and lo and behold, my wife would use the same two words, and my reaction was the same.  In both cases I knew what was coming and nine times out of ten my response was the same.  The two words were, “Did you”, and my common response was, “No, I forgot.”

  • Did you remember to get your brother a card for his birthday?
  • Did you remember to stop at the post office and pick up some stamps?
  • Did you drop off the dry cleaning?

The questions were fair, I was supposed to do something and had dropped the ball, but they also served another purpose; they were a nudge.  If there was one thing to be accomplished in the next 24 hours, it would be the task that I forgot.  Hence, the power of the nudge!

I would like to believe that my mother was ahead of her time, that she understood the psychology behind the use of a nudge, but such is not the case.  I knew that not following through would piss her off and my life would be miserable from that point forward.  Nor did she know Richard Thaler, the Nobel laureate and leading behavioral economist at the University of Chicago, who with former University of Chicago law professor Cass Sunstein co authored,  Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

Nudge Theory as outlined by Thaler and Sunstein, is based on the idea that by shaping the environment, also known as choice architecture, one can influence the likelihood that individuals will choose one option over another.  From an academic perspective we are talking about behavioral economics, a field  of research that combines economics and psychology.  Related research has repeatedly documented how our apparently free choices are affected by the way options are presented to us.  In other words, the questions asked, the options set forth, the environment created, even the facial expressions we use, serve to influence the decisions and subsequent actions of others.  Academics are great, but how do we move from theory to application?  How do we “Nudge” someone to move in the right direction?

Simply put, a nudge is an intervention that maintains freedom of choice but steers people in a particular direction. They can serve to promote positive changes in behavior, and they can be used to help others live a better, happier life.

  • Want to encourage better nutrition?  Put the donuts, candy, chips and cookies out of sight.  Leave fresh fruit, almonds and other healthy snacks on the counter.

  • Want to get a donation for a charitable cause?  Use positive language and frame the request as a way to enable the organization to continue its mission of helping and improving the lives of others.

  • Want to help someone cut back on their food portions?  Use smaller plates and explain how the plate size cuts back on the portion, but gives the illusion of larger portion.

  • Worried about a friend’s health?  Ask them to join you at the gym.  Share  information about the health benefits you’ve experienced through exercise, and most important, how you would enjoy a workout partner.

Ideally, nudging enables us to help others, positively influence a change in their behavior and enable better outcomes.  Likewise, our nudges should be easy and convenient to follow, transparent, non-manipulative and respectful of individuals’ autonomy.  The challenge is to remember that it’s never about what we want, or what we want someone to do, it’s about helping others to discover a better life and the happiness we all deserve.  Consider that challenge my nudge to you – nudge a friend this week.

Embrace the Nudge
Embrace the Challenge.