The 7 Most Creative Examples of Habit-Changing Nudges

From speed camera lotteries to piano stairs: a collection of 7 nifty nudges spotted in the wild

Yannick Bikker
Aug 15, 2019 · 6 min read
‘Nudge’ by Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

Nudge Theory, as articulated by Nobel Prize-winning behavioral economist Richard Thaler, has spawned a universe of real-world applications. The principles of ‘choice architecture’ have since been applied by both savvy marketers and public policy makers.

“There’s no such thing as ‘neutral’ design. Small and apparently insignificant details can have major impacts on people’s behavior.” — Richard H. Thaler

A nudge helps people make better choices for themselves without restricting their freedom of choice. It accomplishes this by making it easier for people to make a certain decision. In other words, putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

Now that we’ve got the definitions out of the way, let’s get into some of the most clever nudges I could find. Starting with…

Perhaps the most famous example of nudging in action took place in the early 1990s at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. Here, the airport’s designers used a simple trick to improve bathroom cleanliness.

Ready, Aim, Fire!

By printing the above image of a housefly on the inside of urinals, the airport significantly improved user “accuracy”: spillage on the bathroom floor was reduced by 80%!

Now this is my favorite nudge of all time. In 2010, Volkswagen picked Kevin Richardson as the winner of its Fun Theory Contest. Richardson invented the “Speed Camera Lottery,” which uses the speeding cameras at intersections to reward those who obey the speed limit with the fees paid by those who violated it.

Gamification and nudging are two sides of the same coin.

I find this idea simple and brilliant. It’s sticks and carrots on an entirely new level. The Speed Camera Lottery is the ultimate nudge: it doesn’t restrict choice — you can still drive as fast as you want to — but the better/safer option is made more attractive in a magnificently creative way.

I’m not the only one who thinks this idea is great, either. The Swedish National Society for Road Safety apparently liked it as well, since they worked with Kevin to experiment with the concept in Stockholm in November 2010.

During the trial, 24,857 cars passed the cameras, and the average speed dropped from 32 km/h to 25 km/h — which is exactly the speed limit of Stockholm’s main roads!

Football fans are known to have very strong opinions on who’s the #1 player of the world. Environmental organization Hubbub takes advantage of this in a brilliant way:

Professional footballers, global icons, and now London street cleaners.

These voting ashtrays (or ‘Ballot Bins’) don’t stop at football though, with previous questions also including matters surrounding Formula One, tennis, and cricket. At this point, 30 UK councils are using it to tackle cigarette litter.

The innovative ashtrays have proven to reduce cigarette litter by 46%, as measured by Southend Council in 2017. In America, environmental charity Keep America Beautiful also tested the Ballot Bins in three different sites. They measured the impact after six months and found a reduction of cigarette litter on busy streets by a whopping 74%.

The picture above illustrates an experiment by GreeNudge. Through reducing plate sizes in hotel restaurants by 2”, they were able to reduce food waste by as much as 22%. Importantly, guest satisfaction stayed the same — they barely noticed the difference.

Check out the spot describing the intervention here.

A simple intervention to reduce indiscriminate honking on Indian roads. Every time the driver honks, a red smiley button starts beeping and flashing. To turn it off, the driver has to press the button. In other words, the button makes the subconscious habit of indiscriminate honking conscious again by giving immediate feedback to the driver.

The results? Drivers reduced their honking by an average of 61% over a period of six months, because the red buzzer was such an annoyance. Apparently, 61% of honking was (more or less) habitual and unrelated to safety.

This one’s a bit more controversial. Preventable, a Canadian traffic safety organization, painted an optical illusion of a little girl chasing a ball, which begins to take shape from about 50 feet away. They placed it on a busy intersection near the Ecole Pauline Johnson in West Vancouver for a week.

The 2D drawing becomes a 3D illusion as drivers approach it.

Although it’s an innovative idea, some critics say that it could cause accidents. “I think it’s awful. I think it’s dangerous,” Sam Schwartz, a former traffic commissioner in New York City, told ABC News. “I think drivers are always scanning and suddenly they see this image up, they may very well panic.”

Here’s a small video clip that shows the illusion from the perspective of an approaching car driver:

“You’re Probably Not Expecting a Child to Run Out On the Road” — Preventable

I personally don’t think that playing with people’s reactions while they’re sitting in a 2,500-pound moving projectile of steel and glass is very wise, but what do you think? Is this helpful in reducing risks or will it just cause even more problems by scaring drivers and leading them to swerve?

The Metro in Stockholm turned its stairs into a grand piano resulting in a 66% increase in use.

The piano stairs encourage subway commuters to ditch the escalators and go for the healthier option: climbing the stairs. It shows that something as simple as fun is the easiest way to change people’s behavior for the better.

After the stairs were first introduced in Sweden, the idea struck a chord (pun intended) with people around the world, with a video of the concept clocking up over 23 million views on YouTube.

They’ve become a massive hit in cities all over the world, with piano stairs appearing in places like Milan, Melbourne, Istanbul, and Auckland.

Honorable mentions

To round off this post, here are some other fun nudges I came across on the internet that didn’t make my Top 7:

Who doesn’t love Cookie Monster?
A metro station in Hamburg, Germany. The city decided to turn the stairs into a running track so that commuters could feel like athletes.
Feel like LeBron James by throwing away your garbage!
Pretty confrontational to say the least.
Stairs at the Utah Valley Univeristy (UVU) campus. They also created graphic lanes for walking, running, and texting. The staircase went viral within weeks, appearing on time.com, cnn.com, Business Insider, and more.

That’s a wrap. What nudges have you encountered? Let me know in the comments below!

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Yannick Bikker

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