You’re out with your friends and you make eye contact with a good-looking someone across the room. You look to your friend and whisper about what just happened.

How the story goes

Your friend sees your apprehension in taking a leap of faith on your own to get up and ask the person holding your attention for their number, so the next time you’re caught staring, your friend gives you a little push in that general direction and all of a sudden you are walking into the unknown under the influence of that ‘nudge’.


Whether or not your conscious brain realizes it, you are being intentionally ‘nudged’ everyday by all kinds of external stimuli. It has the same influence as that friend who ‘nudges’ you into blind date oblivion…

This somewhat controversial phenomenon is fittingly called ‘Nudge Theory.’

So what is it and why should you be aware of it?

Begrudgingly nudged

Nudge Theory is nothing new but it is only fairly recently that this phenomenon has been given a formal name and used strategically on a massive scale on purpose.

Nudge Theory is essentially the act of higher powers issuing, suggesting, and/or then influencing behavioral change on a large scale by ‘nudging’ people through systematic ‘manipulation’. ‘Nudging’ was proposed originally in US ‘behavioral economics’, but it can be adapted and applied much more widely for enabling and encouraging change in people, groups or yourself.

Understanding unhelpful influences

Nudge Theory is used to explore, understand and explain existing influences on how people behave – most often with unhelpful influences – with a motive to remove or alter them.

If you look around, there are lots of these unhelpful ‘nudges’ everywhere – notably in advertising and government. Some are accidental, but many are very deliberate. It is inherently concerned with ‘design of choices’, which influences the choices we subconsciously make.

Nudge Theory is a radically different and more sophisticated approach to achieving change in people than traditional methods that include direct instruction, enforcement, punishment, etc.

Where The Nudge exists

Unbeknownst to you, you probably experience one or more forms of Nudging daily. Some common examples which are for the greater good of humanity are:

1.) Forms of influence

Instead of advertising for people to join a gym and exercise, you may find yourself doing things like using the stairs, counting your steps on a pedometer, or parking far from the entrance.

These little ‘nudges’ are for the greater good, but they are forms of ‘influence’ to get people moving.

2.) Product placement

When you’re at the grocery store and when paying attention, you happen to fill your cart with sugary items that happen to be in the isles at ‘eye level’.

This is not a mistake. Product placement is intentional. Many times the ‘health food’ is ironically placed at the top or bottom of the isles so it’s easier for you to scan right over it.

3.) Litter bugs

In Copenhagen, you may see green footprints painted on the sidewalks leading to garbage bins. Not coincidentally, littering dropped by 46% during the first month these footprints made their first appearance.

nudge theory_2The Nudge’s negativity

Those are some positive examples of how Nudging can be positive.

On the contrary, here are some ways in which Nudging is considered controversial or even unacceptable:

1.) HMRC conformity

“A trial with HMRC that showed how telling late tax payers that most people in their towns had already paid their tax increased payment rates by 15 percentage points. When rolled out this will generate £30m of extra revenue to the Exchequer annually.” – The Guardian

2.) Personalised pressure

“A trial with the Courts Service showed how personalized text messages were six times more effective than final warning letters at prompting fine payments. The Courts Service estimate that this will save some 150,000 bailiff interventions and £30m year when it is rolled out across the country.” – The Guardian

3.) Manipulative photography

“In one trial, a letter sent to non-payers of vehicle taxes was changed to use plainer English, along the line of “pay your tax or lose your car.”

In some cases the letter was further personalized by including a photo of the car in question. The rewritten letter alone doubled the number of people paying the tax; the rewrite with the photo tripled it.” – The Economist

Budge for a Nudge?

Knowledge is power and being aware of ‘Nudge Theory’ can set you on a path to decide for yourself whether or not certain things that are influencing you are for the greater good or are deceptive and manipulative.

There are always two sides to every story and in the classic case of ‘good vs evil,’ Nudge Theory proves to be considered both good and/or bad depending on the situation and people you ask.

Don’t believe everything you read – see, think and hear. Research everything with an open mind so you can make your own educated decisions and not fall trap to something that doesn’t resonate with your heart. And on the other hand, you can use this idea to decide when to influence others in your life in a more positive direction and in turn, you will be contributing to ‘Nudge’ the world to become a better place.

Connect with Expert Emma Pietrzak

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