The word Nudge was first used to mean a behavioural cue to encourage individuals to make a specific decision by Richard Thaler and Cas Sunstein in their book Nudge. (Monty Python may have got there first… but not quite as effectively…)
Thaler and Sunstein are very specific about what a nudge is:
A nudge… is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.
The two authors are also very clear about what a nudge is not. They are not mandates, laws, rules or commandments. These approaches can all produce results, induce compliance or change behaviour. But they’re not nudges.
Thaler and Sunstein explain the difference practically in a canteen or supermarket:
- Putting fruits at eye level at the canteen or supermarket check-out is a nudge. It encourages people to pick up more fruit, buy it, and hopefully eat it. Since fruit is by and large healthy this is a well-being nudge.
- Banning french fries in the canteen or candies from the check-out probably reduces ‘junk food’ consumption. And that can induce well-being. But it’s not a nudge.
Thaler and Sunstein call their approach promoting pro-social behaviour through nudges “libertarian paternalism.” They acknowledge the embedded oxymoron, but argue people are often unable to make good/pro-social choices or decisions.
This is especially true when the people faced with a choice lack direct previous experience, don’t have access to expert knowledge, have too much choice, or simply want to take the easiest choice and not think too much.
A nudge then becomes way to give the target individuals or group a cue or gentle push in the right direction. This push can take the form of visual or verbal messaging, the way something is organised physically, or even the sequence of choices. A sequence of nudges is called the choice architecture.
Let’s imagine for a moment you want to buy a new car. And you are concerned about two things: the impact on the environment of car use and the cost to run the car in terms of petrol. As a simple non-expert consumer how would you assess and compare the various options available? How do you weight up the personal benefit of cheap fuel consumption and positive social benefit of the environmental choice.
Would you measure?
- The emissions per kilometre of the same engine capacity?
- The ‘mileage’ in kilometres per litre of fuel?
It’s almost impossible to come up with a good robust formula to guide the choice. Most people would rather someone else did the complex maths and came up with a recommendation for “Greenest and Most Economical Car 2023.” Note they probably won’t look too deeply into the methodology or the data. They’re looking for a simple nudge. The nudge might be:
- A quiz that asks you to prioritise issues and then provides an answer
- A table with certain cars at the top
- A stamp alongside certain models saying ‘best buy’
- Putting a big green leaf and small $ sign next to an image of the car
Applying the right nudge would help to make the purchase decision easier -especially if the nudge was endorsed by a reliable and trusted source like Which magazine, or a recognised green champion like David Attenborough.
Hardly anyone, as we said earlier, will really deep dive into the data. All of the images and ideas suggested above are based on trusting the source who help make the decision simper.
In charity fundraising a nudge might try to cue people about the size of gift they might make by:
- Reframing it — “for the price of a coffee a week you could…”
- Anchoring it — “give £25 for our 25th anniversary…”
- Priming it — “putting the high £25 at the start of the ask string…”
Note that none of these nudges make logical sense. They all appeal to what Kahneman calls our System One (irrational and fast) thinking, as opposed to our System Two (slow and rational) thinking.
Six Nudge Principles
Thaler and Sunstein have helped popularise this approach by developing a mnemonic to help you embed nudge elements in your choice architecture. And to make the mnemonic more memorable it’s based on the word NUDGE itself.
Job one is to offer the right incentives to the right people to enable them to make the ‘right’ decision. (Well, the right decision in your opinion!) To be effective this needs to go beyond financial and material incentives.
People often make poor financial or material decisions; they may find the maths too complicated. A key may be to include psychological benefits. For example, this could include peace of mind though a money back guarantee for a product purchase.
For a fundraiser the incentive might involve a donor charter that lays out how the charity will safeguard your donation. In a theatre it might involve offering name check in a programme or a plaque on a wall.
Mappings refers to the way you present different decision pathways and these might shape the process rather than specify a choice. In the book, Thaler and Sunstein suggest governments shouldn’t regulate how much telecom companies charge for mobile services directly. That’s not a nudge, they say. Instead, they suggest regulators should specify how transparent companies have to be in a way that allows consumers to make easy relevant comparisons, so average user cost over 12 months for a specific persona.
Fundraisers could offer donors the chance to restrict their gift or not. Or could show what % of their gift goes directly to service delivery and what goes to administration, etc.
People are now used to defaults. They are promoted by platforms like Amazon, YouTube, Facebook, LinkedIn, and Google. Such defaults can even be tailored to the individual using algorithm-designed scripts. AI has a dark side!
This habituation means people often accept the default choice they are presented with if they are too busy or lazy to make a decision.
Just as a restaurant will offer you the choice of different tip levels at the end of your meal — 10%, 15%, or 20% _ a theatre donation page might well ask you to make a gift on top of your ticket price. This helps you decide.
[Basket donation test by the clever Marina Jones at ENO]
People love feedback. Skillful feedback from a coach helps improve performance in actors and athletes, but people like feedback even if it’s just from a machine. Watch passengers on a train as half the carriage plays candy crush on their iPads and smile as they hear the tinkle noise of a success or see the explosion of colour for a result. This feedback can become quite unhelpfully addictive.
Machines aren’t all bad. An example of helpful feedback is the noise of a fake “shutter click” on digital cameras and mobile phones. This reassures people they have taken a photograph. Another example is the ‘loading’ bar as an app completes its action- a search or a payment. You know to wait while something happens.
In fundraising feedback the form of a thanks for a gift helps: as an email ‘message’ direct from a humanitarian worker in the field, or call from the education charity board member just to say thanks on behalf of the children, or the dancer thanks you for supporting the performance.
People make mistakes. Sometimes those mistakes can have quite serious consequences. An example is medications- how do you know if you took your tablets this morning or not if you just have a big strip of them?
Decision architectures should be designed to minimise errors, especially if the consequences could be dangerous. Drugs often have the days of the week printed on the foil packet — so, you know if you took Wednesday’s tablets. Or you may be told to ‘take after breakfast’ to create a useful habit. (This is called behaviour bundling.)
In fundraising people may make mistakes and seek a page that’s not there, or enter their card details wrongly. Try having helpful 404 page to take them back.
[see example from Labour. Jeremy Corbyn wasn’t all bad]
Structure complex choices
Too much choice causes confusion and indecision. Consider the famous jam experiment. Good choice architecture will help guide people to make a good choice in a simple and straightforward way. Amazon is fabulously successful at doing this, even offering you a limited number of alternatives after an initial choice. Think for example of a process that helps you make your eye-test appointment or vaccine jab in three easy steps.
In fundraising try, where you can, to follow the three easy steps route. Don’t ask for more information than you need. Present people with easy-to-understand gift levels. Minimise the number of clicks.