Do subtle attempts to change your actions still work when you know they’re happening? It was thought that it’s easier to manipulate people who are kept in the dark, but it now seems we don’t mind being clearly “nudged” to behave in certain ways.
A nudge uses an understanding of human behaviour to encourage people to do particular things. Nudges work without imposing rules or big penalties – they are more subtle approaches for promoting certain actions.
The term was coined in 2008 by Richard Thaler at the University of Chicago and Cass Sunstein at Harvard University. Since then, politicians around the world have become enchanted by the idea, with the UK government even establishing a “nudge unit”. Formally known as the Behavioural Insights Team, it has used large randomised controlled trials to formulate advice on everything from increasing donations to charity to reducing fraud.
In one study, the team found that rephrasing the message on the UK government’s organ donor website encouraged more people to sign up. The original message politely asked people to join the register, but changing it to “If you needed an organ transplant, would you have one?” helped boost the sign-up rate by the equivalent of 96,000 extra registrations a year.
But is it ethical to alter people’s behaviour in this way without their knowledge? The UK’s nudge unit has come under fire for moving to private ownership – a move which means it is no longer subject to freedom of information requests.
Perhaps this ethical quandary can be avoided, because an explicit nudge can work, too – a finding that counters the ideas of philosopher Luc Bovens at the London School of Economics, who had suggested that nudges work best when people are in the dark. Now Hendrik Bruns at the University of Hamburg, Germany, and his team have found that this isn’t always the case.
The team gave student volunteers €10 each and asked them how much, if any, they would like to donate to a fund to protect against climate change. Any money they didn’t donate would be theirs to keep.
Some of the volunteers were told no extra information, while others were told that the default donation was €8, a move inspired by studies that have found that default options influence economic decision-making. But some of these volunteers were also told that the pre-selected default might have been chosen to influence their behaviour – whereas others were told that it was definitely picked for this purpose. A fifth group was told that the default may have the power to influence their decision, and that it had been purposely picked to increase the amount they gave.
It turned out that the average donation for those who were nudged was €2.87, compared with only €1.67 for those who weren’t told of any default. None of the suggestions that the default may change behaviour had a significant effect on the power of the nudge. People who weren’t in the dark still donated more money.
Their findings are supported by other experiments in recent years. In one study, researchers found they could nudge people into choosing healthier snacks next to the cash register in shops – and that it didn’t matter if the nudge was exposed by an accompanying sign reading “we help you make healthier choices”.
This line of research echoes growing evidence that placebos work even if we know they are fakes. This was first demonstrated in people seeking treatment for irritable bowel syndrome, and has recently turned up again in a study of pain relief.
The fascinating lesson seems to be that nudges and placebos do not depend simply on trickery and deception, and can work in the light of day.
That’s not to say, though, that openness will be embraced by all. The next time you fill in a form online and see that a box has been checked by default, take a moment to consider if you really want to opt into that mailing list.