The power of nudging

A nudge is a gentle push – sometimes so subtle that the person being nudged is not even aware of it. The practice gained academic respectability in 2008 when University of Chicago professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein published Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Since then, dedicated teams involving behavioural researchers have been created in several countries, notably in northern Europe.

The British Behavioural Insights Team, or “nudge unit”, established in 2010 by Prime Minister David Cameron, has trialled over 100 initiatives, working with nearly every department. According to the 2016 report, it helped combat microbial resistance by notifying British doctors who prescribed more antibiotics than their peers, leading to a reduction of prescriptions. By changing the notification form for overdue tax payments, it also reduced the number of late payers by half.

Danish researcher Katrine Lund Skov
“With every nudge you’ll have to evaluate whether or not it’s manipulative and ethically defendable.”
In Denmark, Katrine Lund Skov, managing director of the research group iNudgeyou, described how it ran a supermarket last year amidst a national debate on the responsibility of retailers for unhealthy dietary habits.

By reorganizing the placement of products and using traffic-light labelling on food – green for healthy, red for unhealthy – fruit and vegetable sales were boosted 22–24%, while potato chips, sodas and beer fell 15%. The initiative, originally prompted by the Danish food ministry, was followed up by Coop, a national chain.

Still, the impact of behavioural insights remains limited. The British unit estimates that while initiatives could save hundreds of millions of pounds, that is only a fraction of the £20 billion the government plans to cut in public services over the next three years.

Though some European critics have complained of manipulation in nudging, Lund Skov says that such fears have subsided in recent years. Many countries “want to be sure that people are completely unforced by it, more at ease” with the movement. She adds: “With every nudge you’ll have to evaluate whether or not it’s manipulative and ethically defendable.”