Helping people make better choices — Nudge Theory and Choice architecture

Tom Connor
Mar 31, 2019 · 6 min read

Can you make the default option one that nudges people towards better outcomes?

Photo by Kong Ruksiam from Pexels

Economics 101 says humans are rational — at least at a collective level. We will buy and sell at a value that we can justify maximises our utility. Much of our economic theories stem from this core assumption. Assumptions that if you tax something, like cigarettes and alcohol then people will buy less of it. Or if you reduce taxes then the money saved by people will be reinvested in the economy generating more income for society than the taxes lost. Or that the value of something is independent of whether you own it or not.

Since the 70’s with the pioneering work of Tversky and Kahneman on how irrational people actually are, these core assumptions have been seriously challenged and shown repeatedly to be down right incorrect. People have many short circuits in the way we are made up which bias and colour the way we see the world and make our decision making at times anything but rational. Inspired as a student in the 70’s by the work of Tversky and Kahneman, Richard Thaler began to look into this in more detail, creating what became known as “Nudge Theory” or “Choice Architecture” and ultimately winning Thaler the Nobel Prize in economics in 2017

Thaler and other behavioral economists show that, in reality, people make decisions quickly under pressure, based largely on intuition, and unconsciously guided by biases and psychological fallacies…

The key, says Thaler, is to responsibly use “nudges” — subtle interventions that guide choices without restricting them.

In his seminal book “Nudge- Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” Richard Thaler writes:

A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions…

To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Humans prefer simplicity, have a limited attention span, and go out of their way to avoid hassles. Changing the context in which people make choices can make new and desired behaviors easier to adopt.

Why is it that there is a need for nudge theory and choice architecture? What is the root of the contradiction between our rational theoretical selves and the irrational actual selves? Since Tversky and Kahneman, research has begun to distinguish between two kinds of thinking writes Thaler:

…. one that is intuitive and automatic, and another that is reflective and rational. We will call the first the Automatic System and the second the Reflective System. (In the psychology literature, these two systems are sometimes referred to as System 1 and System 2, respectively.)

  • The Automatic System is rapid and is or feels instinctive, and it does not involve what we usually associate with the word thinking. When you duck because a ball is thrown at you unexpectedly, or get nervous when your airplane hits turbulence, or smile when you see a cute puppy, you are using your Automatic System

Some examples of nudge theory

  • fly sticker on urinals

Or check out this study on Virgin Atlantic pilots looking to save fuel. They

teamed up with economists to try to “nudge” the company’s pilots to use less fuel, using a variety of behavioral interventions.

And it apparently worked. The intervention was so cost effective, the researchers say, that it “outperforms every other reported carbon abatement technology of which we are aware.”

The Nudge Blog has many more examples.

Dan Ariely has also written extensively on the topic of behavioral change and choice architecture. His course on Acumen provides lots of practical examples.

Reducing “Spillage” in urinals…

Japanese train stations use many examples of nudge theory to improve the performance and safety of their highly efficient and patronised network. From blue lights which improve the mood of commuters and reduce suicide attempts; the door closing jingle designed to lighten the highly stressed peak hour commute; A high frequency tone at station entrances is used to reduce teenage loitering — the 17kHz frequency can only be heard by people under 25years.

Even train conductors have a behaviour hack to nudge them to safer outcomes:

Japanese train conductors, drivers, and platform attendants are mandated to use the “point and call” method — called shisa kanko — in executing tasks. By physically pointing at an object, and then verbalizing one’s intended action, a greater portion of the brain is engaged, providing improved situational awareness and accuracy. Studies have repeatedly shown that this technique reduces human error by as much as 85 percent. Pointing-and-calling is now a major workplace safety feature in industries throughout Japan.

Organ donation provides a particularly interesting example. Countries with opt out organ donation programs have over 90% participation compared to opt in countries with only 15% participation. What makes this even more fascinating is that surveys of people in the different programs do not see the default choice as one that was made for them — they appear to raionalise whatever the default is as what they have decided to do on their own free will.

Organ Donation rates

Social media and websites abound with examples of nudges which prompt a desired behaviour. UXplanet highlights micro nudges as

a well-timed small animation that prompts the user to do a “small” task that they may have otherwise forgotten or not have taken notice of.

For instance on instagram, the comment box and tags only pop up on a post when someone pauses long enough to appear interested in the post.

These work best when…

  • The task is small and the nudge is serving as a reminder.
Micro nudge example in Instagram

Because biases appear to be so hardwired and inalterable, most of the attention paid to countering them hasn’t dealt with the problematic thoughts, judgments, or predictions themselves. Instead, it has been devoted to changing behavior, in the form of incentives or “nudges.”

For example, while present bias has so far proved intractable, employers have been able to nudge employees into contributing to retirement plans by making saving the default option; you have to actively take steps in order to not participate. That is, laziness or inertia can be more powerful than bias.

Procedures can also be organized in a way that dissuades or prevents people from acting on biased thoughts. A well-known example: the checklists for doctors and nurses put forward by Atul Gawande in his bookThe Checklist Manifesto.

The Nudge Continuum

10x Curiosity

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change. I write for myself to capture interesting links and synthesise ideas I am trying to learn.

Tom Connor

Written by

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change

10x Curiosity

Always curious - curating knowledge to solve problems and create change. I write for myself to capture interesting links and synthesise ideas I am trying to learn.

More From Medium

Welcome to a place where words matter. On Medium, smart voices and original ideas take center stage - with no ads in sight. Watch
Follow all the topics you care about, and we’ll deliver the best stories for you to your homepage and inbox. Explore
Get unlimited access to the best stories on Medium — and support writers while you’re at it. Just $5/month. Upgrade