Thomas Z. Ramsøy

Juggling & the Limits of Nudging

Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam. There the authorities have etched the image of a black housefly into each urinal. It seems that men usually do not pay much attention to where they aim, which can create a bit of a mess, but if they see a target, attention and therefore accuracy are much increased.”

When we present cues that automatically affect perception and choice, it is often called “nudging.” Contextual cues that affect perception and thought can affect behavior and choice substantially. The above example is taken from Thaler & Sunstein’s well-renowned and highly recommendable book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness,” and the example above encapsulates the essence of nudging: public restrooms are often disgusting, and especially men’s restroom urinals make one wonder whether the claim that men have an edge on women when it comes to spatial abilities… To abate this, a simple cue can be added to the urinal, such as the stamp of a fly. Lo and behold! Men’s urinal accuracy increases dramatically, thus improving the overall quality of restroom visits for us all.

Source: Design Incubation Centre

These small tricks are well-established in increasing the likelihood that a desired behavior happens. A few other examples include:

  • Social nudges are situations in which cues about other’s behaviors are provided. For example, when being given information such as “most popular” customers are often more likely to choose these solutions.
  • Price anchoring is exemplified by cases in which a specific price is given, to affect customers to think they are getting a great deal on a product. This is most often seen as a provided “retail value” label. Changing the outset price (the anchor price) can greatly affect the valuation and choice of products.

So what is a nudge, then? In broad terms, as Thaler and Sunstein labels it, a nudge is

“(…) any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.”

Indeed, nudging has become so popular that a whole industry has been put up around it. We hear about “system 1” companies, nudging companies, and even within applied neuroscience we often hear about nudging as the central way of affecting choice. Nevertheless, over the past few years, we have realized that there are a few limitations of nudging. Some of these include:

  • Limited duration & cue availability
  • Domain specificity
  • Conscious override

I will take these in turn, and at the end, I hope we can have a more complete (and possibly ethical) perspective on how choice can be affected, and whether one should employ nudging in all conditions. At the core of this, my point is that we need to put nudging at its right place, and not as the sole pinnacle of how human choice can be affected

Limited duration & cue availability

In the early days of subliminal perception, one wondered just how durable the process could be. Through extensive studies, researchers converged on a view that subliminal cues were limited in time: some researchers even contended that subliminally presented cues would only affect choice in a matter of seconds. Indeed, most researchers agree that such cues are short-lived, and fade over time. 

The same is the case with nudging, which in some respects work in the same way as subliminal perception. In some instances, nudging can even be considered a type of subliminal perception, if the nudge/cue is not fully consciously registered by the consumer. 

But at the core, nudges can be seen as working for a brief time. You are presented with the cue/nudge and respond accordingly. It can be that the cue changes your perception of the situation, it anchors your price perception, or it can make you more acutely aware of your social context. But it fades just as fast as it has affected you.

The only way to ensure that the nudge works is to make sure it is available as long as you need to affect the choice. Men who visit the urinal with a fly are more accurate at hitting the urinal than when they later go to another urinal without a fly. The nudge thus does not provide a durable effect on choice or action.

Domain specificity

A second limitation of nudging is that it is highly specific — a price anchoring effect for knives does not affect your evaluation of other products. A fly in a urinal only increases urinal accuracy but will not make you better at throwing darts.

This means that nudges are domain specific — they are isolated events to a certain behavior and does not cross into other domains. This suggests that nudges, as powerful as they may be, are still dependent on being effective on the very aspects of choice that they are put to use on. This also means that nudges you expect to use may not always fulfill their promise, simply because they are not well suited to the problem they are trying to solve.

Conscious override

One pertinent issue is the presentation of nudging as the unparalleled access to people’s choices. Many places, one can get the impression that nudging is the most powerful and “secret” sauce for influencing people’s choice.

But nudges are but one of many ways in which we make choices. Nudging falls into a category of subconscious brain processes that can affect our thought and action (often in the reverse order). Seeing a Coca-Cola brand on a bottle? Most consumers are more likely to enjoy the contents of the bottle, a product of automatic firing of the brain’s memory network. 

But we have a second type of motivation: conscious thought. While we often hear that consciousness is feeble, it’s not really the driver of choice etc, we also know that conscious processes is a powerhouse of dramatic changes in your behavior. But there’s an even simpler way of putting it:

You can’t be nudged to juggle

There, I said it. But it’s true. Is there any nudge at all in the world that will learn you how to juggle? The answer is an absolute no. Learning to juggle is the complete antithesis of nudging because it requires a conscious effort to override automatic behavior and force yourself to repeatedly do a behavior. Only when juggling is learned, it detaches from conscious thought and resides as automatic and habitual behavior patterns. 

Conscious control is, therefore, a limitation for nudging. Even becoming conscious about the nudge (e.g. when you think about why someone is showing you the retail price) this reduces the effect that the nudge itself has. 

In a paper I did with Bernie Baars and Stan Franklin, we demonstrate how conscious and subconscious mental processes are distinct in many ways relevant to how we affect choices. Baars has previously distinguished between conscious and unconscious processes driving our choices, and some of the notable can be seen in the figure below:

In the context of conscious vs un/subconscious processes, nudging definitely belongs to the category of un/subconscious processes. From the table above, we can see that such processes may have few errors (nudges can reliably produce the same type of response), and high speed, but conversely are very isolated to a particular domain.

By contrast, conscious choice is related to highly flexible decision-making. Sure, it is definitely effortful and by no means error-free. But it is a powerful mode of thinking that can ensure dramatic and sustained changes in our behaviors. 

Put differently, nudges are limited in scope and time; conscious processes can lead to sustained and dramatic changes in behaviors.

So what?

OK, that may be all good and nice, but what does this mean in terms of when we should use nudging? Here, recent developments in psychology come into play. In a recent paper by Hertwig and Grüne-Yanoff, a distinction is made between nudging and “boosting.” Here, boosting refers to the effort of fostering “(…) people’s competence to make their own choices—that is, to exercise their own agency.” Boosting is contrary to nudging. It requires effort, conscious control, and sustained engagement. On the other hand, it can ensure both dramatic and sustained changes — such as learning how to juggle.

Imaging how you can affect people, then. For short-lived, here-and-now small and short-lived changes, use nudges. For sustained and often dramatic changes, use boosting. Put into context, let’s take the example of affecting people’s sustainable behaviors. Here, both nudging and boosting can be employed. A nudging action could be to provide information about neighbors’ electricity usage/bills. Using boosting, some research shows that one should often involve some level of dialogue with the agent, and thereby set explicit goals and means to achieve these goals. The agent/consumer would then engage in the behavioral change through what may initially seem effortful, but over time will become more automatic actions, where a new sustainable habit is formed.

A negative issue is also lurking when we speak of nudging vs boosting. Since nudging operates as a mainly subconscious effect on choice, one may question the ethical sides of using nudging as a tool in business. Is it ethically defensible to use nudges such as retail price in a sales campaign? Even when companies are using nudges, they can definitely backfire and even hurt the company. So nudgers out there, use with care. 

By contrast, boosting is as conscious as possible: we engage users’ decisions through overt, clear communication, shared goals and means to get there. Boosting is about enabling choice through empowerment, conscious control, and effort. 

Nudging and boosting should both be a part of our mutual toolbox, whether it is through marketing and advertising, HR, management & leadership, or innovation and R&D work. Both have a place and role in affecting our choice of method for influencing choice.