Generally speaking, a nudge is a light touch or push used to attract attention or point someone in the right direction. Nudge theory is a way of “offering small clues that support decision-making”.
Nudging tries to improve people’s decisions by changing the ways options are presented to them, rather than changing the options themselves or rewarding or punishing people, also known as ‘choice architecture’. Nudge theory can also be used to explore, understand, and clarify why and how people behave. There are unhelpful ‘nudges’ everywhere – notably in advertising and government; some accidental, most deliberate.
Over the years, I like to think that I have been motivated enough to achieve important goals. My motivation was the gratification received at completing something that contributes to my wellbeing or after completing an assignment that contributes to a much larger achievement (masters or post-grad). In reality though, there are a number of “nudges” that serve to dilute the importance of a particular outcome – e.g. “I can do without this exercise time because I worked really hard yesterday”, or “I don’t need to finish this assignment today because I still have 36 hours to complete it, I will be fine”. Hands up, if you have ever done this? Is this a nudge or a form of procrastination, maybe even justification?
Nudge theory gets its origins in behavioural economics as a way of positively reinforcing micro-decision making, often unconscious thoughts that are “validated” by the nudge. For example, consider fitness trackers. They provide behavioural insights designed to nudge you away from sedentary behaviour towards your physical activity goals. They do not criticise, instead, they use positive reinforcement to remind (nudge) you to work that little bit harder to “get there”.
If you are like me, this type of nudge works. The message is supportive and validating and offers encouragement toward a greater reward, “Keep going!”, “You are nearly there”, “Well done so far.”
When is a Nudge Intervention Unethical?
Ethical nudging is anything free and transparent that encourages the individual to make the best choice in their own interest. So what happens when the opposite applies. It may be a controversial opinion, but what about nudges that online betting agencies use. The use of nudges works because it reminds the user to lay a bet or advertises a multitude of options that suggest you simply can’t lose. I have four kids (three teenagers and a 21yo). Thankfully, they are not interested in betting; however, just how often betting nudges appear on all social media platforms is always a topic of conversation.
I wonder if there will ever be a time when the medium to long-term health impacts of these nudges become an unreasonable risk for government agencies charged with regulating this form of advertising. There is historical precedent for it. When was the last time you saw cigarettes advertised on mainstream media? The other notable point here is the target audience of these nudges, young males between 18 – 35 years old.
Nudging is a legitimate approach to behaviour change approach; its purpose is to nudge people towards improving their own mental health, wellbeing, financial wellbeing, study habits, medication adherence, or anything else that leads to healthier choices. Nudges that violate a persons autonomy can be justified so long as it leads the person to a positive outcome as they should always be considered democratic procedures.
Let’s be clear; I am not saying that nudging is the solution to all public health issues or a guarantee of postgraduate valedictorian. I am suggesting that used ethically; nudges provide an engaging way to make better decisions and achieve your desired outcome. Behaviour change requires intrinsic motivation and desire, and nudges can be the first level stimulus that enables the conscious mind into action.