On Nudging: Behavior Change is a Journey, Not Just a Destination

July 23, 2018

Since the book’s release ten years ago, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, has taken the world by storm. Authors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler have inspired a movement rooted in behavioral economics that can be seen today in over 70% of the world’s governments and 196 total institutions who have formed “behavioral insights teams” or “nudge units.”

In order to understand Nudge’s success, let’s start with defining some terms. Sunstein and Thaler define nudging in their book as “…any aspect of choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives” (pg. 6). Let’s unpack that. Choice architecture is the purposeful structuring of the context, timing, and presentation of options to influence a decision. Like an architect of buildings will have a design goal in mind, choice architects have a target decision or behavior in mind. Nudging is a more specific form of choice architecture that aims to retain free choice in the decision-making process. Consider the case of using a GPS in your car: while you’re able to choose whatever route you like (or turn it off entirely!), the GPS helps make getting to your destination that much easier. But what if this process could be about the destination and the journey to get there?

At Rare’s Center for Behavior & the Environment, one of our three core principles for behavior change is choice architecture. Nudging can be and has been an effective tool for shaping the behavioral path and making targeted behaviors easier to do. It draws on many foundational observations of human behavior and non-rational decision making processes. It is easy, cheap, replicable, and delivers big results through small changes. With that being said, we have found that realizing long term behavior change requires additional insights from behavioral science and other social science fields that transcend human biases. Let’s explore three additional dimensions of behavior change that could build on the nudging framework for lasting conservation outcomes.

1. Durability

One opportunity is to extend the effect of nudging beyond the time of the intervention. Simplifying choices and communicating during decision points — key tenets of choice architecture — are important to a campaign’s success, but alone, they are unlikely to ensure sustained behavior change or help individuals overcome future barriers. For example, if we want fishers to respect no-take zones, we could mark them with red buoys and have a community member standing on the beach reminding fishers of where they can fish. But should those buoys float away or the community member miss a day of work, what happens? If the behavior is contingent solely upon environmental cues instead of the understanding and valuation of that behavior, we need additional tools to make sure this behavior exists over the long term or in a different setting. Fishers who are committed to protecting their fishery in addition to receiving reminders will be more likely to practice conservation as a way of life.

2. Spillover

Similarly, the success of an intervention can be measured by whether it affects more than one behavior or causes someone to help others adopt the behavior themselves. Psychology experts Freedman and Fraser (1966) also call this the “foot in the door” technique, where complying with a minor behavioral change can lead to bigger ones in the future. Growing knowledge, skills, emotions, and values related to a behavior can help a person form an identity that leads to a suite of behaviors greater than any single one. This identity can also help them to share their success with others and become a change agent. While nudging on its own may not create this effect, we can bolster it with other behavior levers like emotional appeals and social incentives. For example, if farmers are given smart watering systems that send prompts about watering during optimal times of the day, farmers will probably be more likely to water at the right time. But if in addition we inspire farmers as providers for their community and stewards of their environment, we are building the motivation to leverage a simple intervention into something potentially more impactful.

3. Meaningfulness

Finally, nudging is designed to help people make better decisions. We believe behavior change should also be about individual well-being. Choice architecture and nudging work primarily by shaping decision making environments by anticipating rather than engaging directly with how people think and feel. We can enhance the uses of nudges by connecting with human values, needs, concerns, and abilities that help people to grow and thrive. Incorporating positive emotions strengthens behavior change through connecting people to their personal goals and well-being. For example, an animal-lover who is trying to eat less meat could benefit from learning about how decreased meat consumption increases animal welfare. This creates an alignment between behavior and values in addition to making this behavior easier to do.

Through these examples, there are opportunities to expand the approach and impacts of nudging by involving people in their behavioral goals. Rare continues to demonstrate that putting people at the heart of behavior change works. We recognize it takes time and energy to address both the journey and the destination of behavior change; and we believe that it is well worth it for both lasting behavior and happier people.