Nudging Changes in Behavior

The supposition that human beings are “rational” actors who conduct a logical analysis of a situation, and make choices based on this analysis, is one of the fundamental underpinnings of economics. Yet, new research on the brain and human behavior is showing that this may not be true for most people. We now face a bewildering array of choices, experiencing information overload and a shortened decision making period. This new brain science has given rise to the popularization of an obscure branch of the “dismal science” (economics) called behavioral economics.

Behavioral economics has shown the power of making slight tweaks to a message that allows a person to receive information in a way that alters their original perception of it. This has led many in policy making circles to capitalize on this finding and begin to utilize these tools as a way of “nudging” people to choose the desired action.  As highlighted in the book Nudge, by Richard Taylor and Cass Sunstein, nudges are slight policy variations that encourage different behavioral choices among those affected.


Nudges are being implemented by policy makers around the world, because they help achieve policy goals without the sausage making that typically goes along with democratic policy making. The effect on personal decision making and choice will only grow in the near future.

Consider the recycle bin to the left. At first glance, you might not notice much difference between the two choices, yet you will find yourself strangely compelled to ensure your recyclables end up in the blue recycle container. The color, shape of opening and juxtaposition with the landfill container are all purposefully selected to ensure you do, and it works. Recycling rates, with nudges similar to these outlined here have been shown to be 30% higher than standard receptacles.

Consider organ donation, where an “opt in” donor card accompanies driver’s license applications in California. You can donate your organs by agreeing to donate them and place a sticker on your driver’s license. In other countries, an “opt out” plan requires people to state they don’t want to donate their organs after their death. Guess which policy results in higher organ donations? The chart below summarizes this nudge.

Source: Science, vol. 302

While nudges aren’t solutions for every problem, they will continue to be utilized by policy makers, designers and planners seeking strategies to get people to select the “right” behavior or outcome.