Are behavioural nudges overrated or just badly designed?

It is possible to increase people’s healthy snack choices by strategically placing fruits and vegetables in easy-to-reach spots.
It is possible to increase people’s healthy snack choices by strategically placing fruits and vegetables in easy-to-reach spots.


  • Some nudges work while other don't. A nudge works best when the problem it is trying to solve is singular. Effective nudges that lead to sustained behaviour change must be based on a deep understanding of how humans make decisions.

Last month, an article in Harvard Business Review (HBR) ‘Will Your Nudge Have a Lasting Impact?’ by Evan Polman and Sam J. Maglio questioned the effectiveness of nudges used in policymaking and corporate strategy. 

Ever since the book Nudge by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein was published in 2008, behavioural nudges, or interventions designed to subtly steer individuals towards desired behaviours, has become a favourite tool of policymakers around the world. Governments of the UK, US, Canada and even India have created ‘nudge units.’ Several organizations in a variety of fields, including finance, health, education and sustainability, have created specific teams that deploy nudges to influence the behaviour of target audience.

The core argument of the HBR article is that although behavioural nudges make people more likely to pick a targeted option, nudged people use it less often and for less time than those who make that choice without a nudge. For example, it is possible to increase people’s healthy snack choices by strategically placing fruits and vegetables in easy-to-reach spots. However, they may not eat these healthy snacks often enough, with much of it going into trash.

Also read: A chocolate nudge can serve a public purpose

So, do nudges actually work? The simple answer is that in some cases they do not and in some cases they do. Knowing the difference between the two situations is critical to a nudge practitioner’s success.

Nudges cannot solve complex human behaviour problems whose roots are spread deep and wide. Black money in an economy is one such complex problem. Many players and factors have surreptitiously interacted over several decades to create this problem, so it was not surprising that an attempt to solve it in 2016 through a singular nudge like demonetization did not work.

A nudge works best when the problem it is trying to solve is singular. Many behaviour problems looks singular, but in reality are not. Getting people to eat healthy might look as simple as getting them to pick a fruit as part of their meal. But, on closer inspection, one would realize that getting someone to pick a fruit involves pushing one behaviour, but getting that person to eat that fruit requires working on a different behaviour. Each of these behaviours needs a different nudge. So I am not surprised by the HBR article authors’ discovery that many people who picked up a fruit ended up throwing it in a trash can.

Also read: Climate nudge: Let behavioural economics solve the planet’s crisis

The examples that made Nudge Theory famous—like something being made the default option increasing its adoption—have an inherent problem. They give the impression that designing an appropriate nudge is a simple task—as simple as copying a heuristic principle from a famous book on behavioural economics to use as a solution. This type of peripheral approach to nudge creation is what delivers weak nudges, like placing fruit within one’s reach that the HBR article refers to.

For effective nudges that actually lead to sustained behaviour change, their development needs to be based on a deep understanding of human decision-making processes. But this approach is long-drawn and involves a lot of hard work.

While studying the recent covid vaccine hesitancy problem, one realized that multiple behavioural barriers had to be tackled before inducing a person to take both shots of the vaccine. Countries that managed to tackle each of those barriers specifically had more successful vaccination programmes. So, while tackling such behavioural issues, one should identify single behaviours that often constitute a larger problem. Then specific nudges for each of those separate behaviours should be developed.

Heuristics, or the mental short-cuts that constitute the foundation of effective nudge strategies to modify behaviour, reside at the non-conscious level of the human brain. Over its long story of evolution, the human brain has developed several ‘smart heuristics’ to take decisions without much information processing.

Also read: The problem with behavioural nudges

Incorporating evolutionary constructs into nudges go a long way in improving their effectiveness. But traditional research methods like focus-group discussions that focus on the brain’s conscious processes are useless in identifying how brain evolution guides modern behaviour. 

To develop truly effective tools, one needs to deploy research methodologies that dive deep into the non-conscious processes of the brain. Emotions, for example, are an integral part of all human decisions. Emotional stimuli are processed the fastest by the human brain. So identifying the emotions at play at the point-of-action and incorporating these into nudges would enhance their effectiveness.

Professor Richard Thaler, who put forward the concept of nudges, is a behavioural economist. But it has not served us well to rely only on knowledge from the field of behavioural economics for the formulation of nudges. Taking into account learnings from several other disciplines—such as Cognitive Neuroscience, Evolutionary biology, Sociology and Design—would go a long way in designing effective nudges.

The problem that the HBR article refers to has nothing to do with the inadequacy of Nudge Theory, as explained by Thaler and others. The problem lies with a lackadaisical attitude many of us have towards designing nudges. If a peripheral approach to nudge creation is replaced with a deeper dive into the non-conscious brain processes, it will surely help unearth several effective strategies to nudge better human behaviour.

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