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Nudge Nudge (Sink Sink?)

13 May, 2022

Nudge theory has long been lauded as a behavioural science gold card, and by some of its cheerleaders, as the saviour of the world in its entirety. And that’s where the problem arises. If the bar for success is preventing climate change and alleviating obesity, nudge theory was always doomed to fail.

For those unfamiliar, nudge theory refers to a focus on indirectly encouraging individuals to make minor shifts in their own behaviour – for example highlighting the healthier option on a food menu, or reducing plate size. The appeal of nudging is that it is relatively cheap, quick and easy to implement, and at times has seemed to produce impressive results.

However, recent evaluations of nudge theory say its returns are modest at best and – perhaps more importantly – a harmful distraction from the more fundamental systemic changes required to genuinely change behaviour. Take the widely-used example of default green energy tariffs. These are shown to be highly effective in redistributing the allocation of green energy, but to have no direct and immediate impact on the renewable energy mix of said supplier.

To us much of this is obvious. We’ve long believed that social marketing and behavioural science is one piece of the overall puzzle of driving positive change. Few issues can be changed at an individual level. We need all players to come together and this holistically to drive systemic change. But this doesn’t mean ditching the focus on individual behaviour all together; the truth is that a nudge is still a very useful weapon to have in the arsenal, just make sure it’s not your only one.

By Budd Nicholson

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