Talk about nudging, and you automatically think of a friend elbowing you in the side to draw your attention to that much-despised colleague’s antics across the room. That’s one sort of nudging for sure. But there’s a more powerful nudge that’s at work all around us which we aren’t even aware of—even though it significantly impacts our behaviour.
Remember the time when you uncharacteristically picked up multigrain instead of your favourite white bread after seeing it stocked near the cash counter? Or when you saw your niece diligently putting away her toys after she heard your sister telling you how much she admires the neighbour’s kids for tidying up their room once they finish playing? Those were nudges at work.
Academics started talking about ‘the art of the nudge’ in the mid-90s. But the all-encompassing ‘nudge theory’, which explains how ‘choice architects’ move people in directions that make their lives better, was brought into prominence in 2008 by a book called Nudge, written by legal scholar Cass Sunstein and Nobel Prize-winning behavioural economist Richard Thaler.
Critics call nudging manipulative. Its supporters disagree and peg it as a transparent intervention that benefits people without impinging on their free will. “Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye-level counts as a nudge; banning junk food does not,” says Thaler.
Nudgers basically use three techniques. The first is social proof, which is what your sister used to make her daughter realise that tidy people are admired. In the second technique, nudging makes the desired option the most prominent one. That’s what your retailer did, when he stacked healthy multigrain bread next to the cash counter. The third nudge relies on the fact that most people fall back on the status quo or default option when asked to make a choice. This is commonly used by governments, even companies, when they want people to opt for a policy that, they believe, produces better outcomes.
Spain, for instance, uses the default nudge for its organ donation system, which all its citizens are automatically registered for unless they specifically opt out. The belief is that most people, deep down, want to donate their organs and save someone else’s life but typically never get around to registering. By making it a default option, the government has nudged everyone into becoming a donor.
Keep your eyes open and you’ll see nudges being employed all over the place. Have you noticed colourful dustbins shaped like comic characters with ‘thank you’ written around their gaping mouths? Those are bins nudging children to dispose of their waste sensibly. The chaps at Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam are even more ingenious. Tired of men messing up the toilets, they etched an image of a black fly into every urinal, just to the left of the drain.
With the men nudged to aim right at their target, ‘spillage’ dropped by 80 per cent immediately. Closer home, the Kejriwal administration has nudged Delhi’s citizens to become more health-conscious by creating over a thousand outdoor gyms in neighbourhood parks. There are no trainers around, nor were any orders emitted, and yet, everyone is flocking to exercise. Maybe it’s time to rephrase the proverb. Maybe a nudge in time saves nine.