Nobel Prize winning economist Richard Thaler introduced the concept of nudges to the field of behavioral economics. His work, a mix of psychology and finance, has had enormous impact on our daily lives.
Seemingly tiny changes have bolstered retirement balances by an estimated $30 billion, increased organ donor enrollment by 40% and helped establishments reduce ‘spillage’ by improving men’s aim when using urinals. There are even more scenarios where nudges might be able to change our lives for the better, but first let’s go over the basics.
Introduction to Behavioral Economics
Behavioral economics is the field of study where psychology and economics meet. Traditionally, economic theories were based on the assumption that humans would make rational choices (Hah!). This calculating human was called an “Econ” and could be relied on to never make a losing bet or be fooled by sales tactics. Perhaps not surprisingly, it turns out that there are quirks in human decision-making that sets us apart from the fully-rational Econ.
Behavioral economics delves into the ways that moods, biases, and emotions affect what we do with our money. There are several interesting findings—from the fact that we buy more when we have fewer choices to the way we value things more when we own them. I plan to flesh these findings out in a series of psychology & money articles, but first I want to focus on a single concept that came out of behavioral economics: the nudge.
The Psychology of Money, Part 1: 4 Ways Your Brain is Working Against You
The Psychology of Poverty — How Adversity Taught Me The Lessons I Needed To FIRE
What is a 'Nudge'?
“Our premise was simple. Because people are Humans, not Econs, they make predictable errors. If we can anticipate those errors, we can devise policies that will reduce the error rate.” ― Richard H. Thaler, Misbehaving: The Making of Behavioral Economics
Three Examples of Successful 'Nudges': 401(k)s, Organ Donations, and Clean Restrooms
1. Auto-enrollment Into 401(k)s and Other Retirement Plans
“At that time, participants had to actively opt in to join such plans. I suggested changing the default so that if people did nothing, they would be automatically enrolled.” ― Richard H. Thaler, Chicago Booth
After success in the UK, companies in the US also started changing the default so you were enrolled from day 1. In one example, the company Yelp changed their 401(k) plan from something you had to sign up for to something you were automatically enrolled into (but could opt-out if you wanted). After the change, enrollment rocketed from less than 20% to more than 80%.
2. Sign Up To Be An Organ Donor
Over 10,000 people a year die while waiting for an organ. Acting on Thaler’s theoretical arguments, some states like California and NY changed the default on DMV licenses so that individuals are enrolled automatically to be organ donors, but still free to opt-out. This resulted in a rise of organ donors from 30–40% donors to 70–80% donors.
The point is to nudge people in the right direction. Inertia often takes over when it comes to signing up for a 401(k) or changing an ingrained habit. By making this simple change, more lives will be saved in the long run.
3. Help Men Aim At The Urinals
The third famous example of ‘nudges’ was introduced at Amsterdam’s Schipol’s Airport. In an effort to reduce ‘human spillage’ (ew), little stick-on decals of flies were placed right above the drain.
The experiment worked― spillage reduced by 80%, which meant huge savings in maintenance costs (and raised questions about mankind’s inhumane treatment of insects). Since then public programs have worked on initiatives like making subway stairs into musical notes so people will walk on them and creating cigarette disposals into voting boxes to keep sidewalks tidy. Nudges can be fun little ways to get people to act in a way that will benefit society as a whole.
Privacy: a Potentially Positive Nudge
In a paper called Nudging Privacy – The Behavioral Economics of Personal Information, the author, Alessandro Acquisti, notes that online social networks allow users to post their dates of birth. While not particularly sensitive information, it is still a data point that can be used to exploit individual’s personal information.
Rather than outright banning sharing birthdays on social media, Acquisti proposes that in the spirit of nudges, sites could make it easy and intuitive to change the visibility settings on personal information. Better yet, “a soft paternalistic approach might, instead, provide context to aid the user’s decision—such as visually representing how many other users (or types of users) might be able to access that information or what they can do with it.”
Lastly, the information could be hidden by default unless the user decides to explicitly share it. This makes the ‘default’ option the most private, which would benefit most people overall in the spirit of the nudge.
Beware of the Dark Side of Nudges
While nudges were created to be forces of ‘good’ it’s not hard to see how nudges could be used for evil. Two companies come to mind when considering using ‘nudges’ in their business practices.
Uber's Nudge To Keep Drivers On The Road
Uber has been accused of nudging their drivers to continue driving during less lucrative times by setting earning goals and alerting the driver how close they are right as they are about to log off.
The texts said something like, “You’re $20 away from making $200 in net earnings. Are you sure you want to go offline?” The default option is highlighted: Keep Driving.
The decision to continue driving is still ultimately in the hands of the driver, so one could argue that this psychological trick is still in line with nudges. However, just because the user has the freedom of choice and can easily opt out doesn’t mean it’s “right”. As it’s not in the driver’s best interest to continue driving when earning potential is low, this is ultimately against the spirit of nudges.
My Personal Downfall: Netflix Nudges
In my own life, I have fallen prey to another ‘nudge’: Netflix binging. The default is to continue on to the next episode, so even though I could opt-out of watching another episode, I often find myself caught up watching more television than I intended.
In my house, we have implemented an ‘always pause and wait 2 minutes’ before deciding whether or not we should watch another episode. Typically the answer is no. If we skip this rule, it’s almost inevitable that with a simple nudge we will let the next episode of Schitt’s Creek begin to play.
As companies become aware of the potential of nudges and capitalize on them, it’s important for us to understand as well so we don’t succumb too easily to marketing tactics.
The Powerful Effect of Applied Psychology
What Do You Think?
Can you think of other nudges in real life?
Have you ever realized you were being 'nudged'?
What other interesting psychological phenomena affect our choices?
Let me know in the comments below!