Nudge theory

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Nudge theory (or nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance to influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals. The theory claims to be at least as effective, if not more effective, than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. The concept has influenced British and American politicians.

Definition of a nudge[edit]

Example of a nudge: a fake plastic housefly in the men's public toilet urinals

At the heart of nudge theory is the concept of nudge. The first formulation of this term and associated principles was developed in cybernetics by James Wilk before 1995 and described by Brunel University academic D. J. Stewart as "the art of the nudge" (sometimes referred to as micronudges[1]). It also drew on methodological influences from clinical psychotherapy tracing back to Gregory Bateson, including contributions from Milton Erickson, Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, and Bill O'Hanlon.[2] In this variant, the nudge is a microtargetted design geared towards a specific group of people, irrespective of the scale of intended intervention.

In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness brought nudge theory to prominence. The volume brought the discourse on nudge theory to the wider public. It also gained a following among US and UK politicians, in the private sector and in public health.[3] The authors refer to influencing behaviour without coercion as libertarian paternalism and the influencers as choice architects.[4] Thaler and Sunstein defined their concept as:

A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

In this form, drawing on behavioral economics, the nudge is more generally applied to influence behaviour.

One of the most frequently cited examples of a nudge is the etching of the image of a housefly into the men's room urinals at Amsterdam's Schiphol Airport, which is intended to "improve the aim".[5]

Application of theory[edit]

In 2008, the United States appointed of Sunstein, who helped develop the theory, as administrator of the Office of Information and Regulatory Affairs.[4][6][7]

Notable applications of nudge theory include the formation of the British Behavioural Insights Team in 2010. It is often called the "Nudge Unit", at the British Cabinet Office, headed by David Halpern.[8]

Both Prime Minister David Cameron and President Barack Obama sought to employ nudge theory to advance domestic policy goals during their terms.[9]

In Australia, the government of New South Wales established a Behavioural Insights community of practice.[10]

Nudge theory has also been applied to business management and corporate culture, such as in relation to health, safety and environment (HSE) and human resources. Regarding its application to HSE, one of the primary goals of nudge is to achieve a "zero accident culture".[11]

Leading Silicon Valley companies are forerunners in applying nudge theory in corporate setting. These companies are using nudges in various forms to increase productivity and happiness of employees. Recently, further companies are gaining interest in using what is called "nudge management" to improve the productivity of their white-collar workers.[12]


Nudge theory has also been criticised. Tammy Boyce, from public health foundation The King's Fund, has said: "We need to move away from short-term, politically motivated initiatives such as the 'nudging people' idea, which are not based on any good evidence and don't help people make long-term behaviour changes."[13]

Other scholars have echoed similar concerns, particularly with regard to the need to better understand the psychological factors that predict long-term behavioral changes.[14]

It has been remarked that nudging is also a euphemism for psychological manipulation as practiced in social engineering.[15][16][17]

Nudge theory and similar policy frameworks have been criticized by some psychologists for failing to take into account the psychological determinants of the behaviours that they are trying to change,[18] despite the ethical implications.[19]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ Wilk, J. (1999), "Mind, nature and the emerging science of change: An introduction to metamorphology.", in G. Cornelis, S. Smets, & J. Van Bendegem, EINSTEIN MEETS MAGRITTE: An Interdisciplinary Reflection on Science, Nature, Art, Human Action and Society: Metadebates on science, 6, Springer Netherlands, pp. 71–87, doi:10.1007/978-94-017-2245-2_6 
  2. ^ O'Hanlon, B., & Wilk, J. (1987), Shifting contexts : The generation of effective psychotherapy., New York, N.Y.: Guilford Press. 
  3. ^ See: Dr. Jennifer Lunt and Malcolm Staves
  4. ^ a b Andrew Sparrow (2008-08-22). "Speak 'Nudge': The 10 key phrases from David Cameron's favourite book". London: The Guardian. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  5. ^ R. Thaler and C. Sunstein. (2008). Nudge. Penguin Books. 
  6. ^ Carol Lewis (2009-07-22). "Why Barack Obama and David Cameron are keen to 'nudge' you". London: The Times. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
  7. ^ James Forsyth (2009-07-16). "Nudge, nudge: meet the Cameroons' new guru". The Spectator. Retrieved 2009-09-09. 
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  12. ^ Ebert, Philip; Freibichler, Wolfgang (2017). "Nudge management: applying behavioural science to increase knowledge worker productivity". Journal of Organization Design. 6:4. 
  13. ^ Lakhani, Nina (December 7, 2008). "Unhealthy lifestyles here to stay, in spite of costly campaigns". The Independent. London. Retrieved April 28, 2010. 
  14. ^ van der Linden, S. (2013). "A Response to Dolan. In A. Oliver (Ed.)" (PDF). pp. 209–2015. 
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  18. ^ van der Linden, Sander (2013). "A response to Dolan". In Oliver, Adam. Behavioural Public Policy. Cambridge University Press. pp. 209–215. ISBN 9781107617377. 
  19. ^ Fischer, Mira; Lotz, Sebastian (2014). "Is Soft Paternalism Ethically Legitimate? - The Relevance of Psychological Processes for the Assessment of Nudge-Based Policies". Cologne Graduate School Working Paper Series (05-02). Retrieved 2014-05-30. 

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