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The Best—and Worst—Nudges, According to CHIBE Affiliates   

the best and worst nudges according to chibe faculty. picture of a hand pushing over dominoes

One of the tools behavioral economists use to influence people’s behavior is a nudge. What exactly is a nudge? Richard Thaler, PhD, and Cass Sunstein, JD, are credited with popularizing the term in their book “Nudge,” saying:

“A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

The Center for Health Incentives and Behavioral Economics (CHIBE) spoke with some of our affiliated faculty and staff to round up some of the best and worst examples of nudges.

“Definitely the ‘urinal fly,’ said David Asch, MD, MBA, referencing the design at an Amsterdam airport where urinals were decked out with the image of a fly in an effort to reduce spillage. “No instructions are needed. You don’t need a sign that says, ‘Aim for the fly.’ Men will naturally aim at the fly. They can’t help it. It’s like a cat and a laser pointer.”

Shivan Mehta, MD, MBA, said one of his favorite nudges is leveraging social norms to reduce energy consumption, like those utility bills that note how much energy your household is using compared to other households in the area.

“It is low cost to administer and effective at behavior change, but also user friendly,” Dr. Mehta said. “When I look at my energy bill, I always look to see how I compare to my neighbors.”

Leveraging social norms was also a favorite nudge of Gretchen Chapman, PhD.

“My vote is for social norms because once established they have a powerful effect on behavior,” Dr. Chapman said. “I notice that I never wear a mask to staff meetings because no one else is wearing one, but I frequently wear one at faculty meetings because many other people are wearing them. The risk of transmissions is similarly low at these different meetings, but without even deliberating I tend to mimic what others are doing.”

Rinad Beidas, PhD, said her favorite example of a nudge was the piano stair installation that Volkswagen Sweden and ad agency DDB Stockholm created. To nudge people into taking the stairs over the escalator, the team transformed the stairs into piano keys that made music when people stepped on them.

“It is a nudge that perfectly embodies EAST principles – it is easy, attractive, social, and timely – encourages physical behavior, and reminds me of one of my favorite childhood movies, ‘Big!’”

Jingsan Zhu, MS, MPH, said he was excited to see news of government policy informed by nudge-based design embedded in the SECURE 2.0 Act, which Congress is expected to pass soon.

“It contains two nudge-based designs that I really like: the first has to do with choice architecture, in which employers that offer a 401(k) or 403(b) retirement program would be required to auto-enroll all employees (while preserving their choices to opt-out); second, employers that make matching contributions to retirement accounts can now do so on the basis of not only an employee’s individual contributions but also their student loan payments, effectively helping younger employees who may not be able to save for retirement due to student debt burden,” Zhu said.

For Eric VanEpps, PhD, whose research delves into question asking and the signals we send through the questions we ask, one of his favorite nudges is the “presumptive ask.”

“Essentially, when there’s something a nudger might want an individual to do, a presumptive ask is a question by the asker that presumes consent and focuses attention on how the action will be carried out, rather than if,” Dr. VanEpps said. “For example, a health care provider might ask when the patient would like a follow-up appointment rather than if they would like a follow-up, or ask parents which vaccines they intend to have their child get this visit rather than whether they intend to get vaccinated.”

Another example, as seen in this SSRN working paper, shows how a presumptive ask can be used in charitable donations.

“The idea in the paper is that charitable requests can use suggested donation amounts as a version of a presumptive ask, and a presumptive ask focused on how much people will donate can actually be more persuasive than other types of presumptive asks (e.g., ones that presume giving but ask which charity you want to give to),” he said.

Dr. VanEpps said he uses the presumptive ask nudge on his child who is almost 4 years old, asking things like, “How soon do you want to leave the park?” or “What fruit do you want to have as your snack?” to try to avoid battles over whether they should leave the park or whether other kinds of snacks are available.

Some of our CHIBE affiliates also shared nudges that they use in their own life.

Zhu recently used a nudge with his 10-year-old daughter, who was prioritizing many things over her summer reading assignment. Zhu saw that a kids Kindle device was on sale and wondered if this different format might encourage her to finish her reading.

“I got one for her, hoping this cute little eBook reader will nudge her to read more,” he said. “It turns out once we downloaded the book on the e-reader, she finished the whole book that very night. I guess at least in the short term, my nudge worked – it remains to be seen if the novelty factor wears out!”

Mark Pauly, PhD, said that each morning, in order to remember to turn off his exterior lamp, he always walks by it on his way to pick up the paper at the end of the driveway. He has also been brainstorming a way to find a nudge to remember where the gearshift and seat adjustments are in his two cars.

“I have one car with gearshift on the console and seat adjustment on the seat and another car with shift on the steering column and seat adjustment on the door. I am trying to find a nudge to avoid turning on the wipers when I want to shift into ‘D’ or pounding on the door when I want to fit into the seat,” said Dr. Pauly, who promised a free ride in his car with the sunroof open to anyone who had any suggestions.

And as for least favorite nudges?

Amol Navathe, MD, PhD, said his least favorite nudge is the autoplay feature that YouTube and Netflix use because it works against personal choice.

“As soon as you pause, it starts playing something for you and doesn’t give time for a conscious choice to be made,” Dr. Navathe said. “It’s pernicious behavioral economics design!”