Why Social Nudges Should be Part of Public Policy.

As much as we hate to admit it, often we don't act in our best interest. 


The Power of Influence

We are easily influenced by our friends, our family, our mood, and unsurprisingly, the media. Advertisements play off of our desire to be perceived as sexy, beautiful, powerful, intelligent beings in order to get us to buy a particular product, brand, or service.  

When that doesn’t work stimulating fear or tragedy is utilized in order to provoke us to buy. We are constantly being nudged to do things we would not normally do. We cannot escape. We are nudged in the supermarket, at the gas station, on the internet, and (for men) even while peeing in a public restrooms that (may or maynot) have a tiny flies painted in the center of the urinals. Choice architecture, nudges, and advertisers have dissected the right height, color, scent, image, and price point to get us to buy things we wouldn’t normally or act in ways we should.

social nudges

A Different Way

 It has been eight years since the book, Nudge, was first published. So why haven’t more policy makers better utilized the insight gleamed from the authors Thaler and Sunstein?

For those who haven’t read it, the basic concept is that we do not act rationally. Instead, most often we are acting on autopilot, which means that we are easily nudged, using various choice architectures, into different behaviours. Advertisers use this to their advantage all the time. Policy makers should too.

By now, most of us are probably aware that over consumption by the most developed countries is causing disastrous environmental impacts. Yet, the tragedy of the commons will eventually strike us all as we seem to be unwilling to make the drastic changes to our lifestyles needed to transform our planet (for the better).  


Choice Architecture

Thaler and Sunstein describe in detail how choice architecture, or the six design principles, including, incentives, understanding mapping, defaults, giving feedback, expecting errors, and structuring complex choices can all be used to create social nudges on all sorts of behaviours.

In terms of environmental issues, social nudges using descriptive norms have ‘proved to be effective in inducing pro-environmental behaviours such as energy conservation, littering, recycling, and transportation behaviour. (Demarque,2015:167)

One striking example shared in the book was that of Southern California Edison Energy Company’s attempt to decrease energy usage. The company gave customers and multi-colour glowing orb that turned red when lots of energy was being used and green when energy use was modest. In just a few weeks, customers using the orb had reduced the amount of energy they used during peak periods, by 40 percent. The visualization of their consumption habits, gave customers the small nudge they needed in order to decrease their usage.

Energy Conservation

Policy Plans

For the most part, we want to save our planet from complete destruction. We just aren’t rational. The unsustainable purchase decisions of consumers contribute to major environmental and social damage worldwide — and especially in the developing world. We do not see the direct impact our consumption habits actually have on our environment— and currently, beyond the orb, there’s no easy way to show it. 

We need policy actors to better utilize social nudges as a policy tool in order to help us make better decisions for ourselves, our neighbours, and our planet.

Unfortunately, when global leaders came together this year to create the Sustainable Development Goals, social nudges were not on the list of actionable ways to decrease consumption or to promote sustainable production.

sustainable development goals

Given the difficulty of creating policies at the global level and actually enforcing them– social nudges provide an alternative approach to help to kick-start the momentum needed to change our consumption habits.

The nudge revolution encourages the use by government of plain language; favours the design of policies that actually take account of real-world behaviour; and allows the testing of ideas on a small scale before wider implementation. (The Economist, 2012)

While radical change is needed in order meet our planetary boundaries, there are small steps that can be taken by each of us that can make a big difference.

For example, at the conclusion of the book, Thaler and Sunstein list of twenty various nudges that are being used by countries around the world – many of which are environmentally focused. In Sweden, there’s a power cord that glows red when it has been on for a long time. In Japan, Britain and France they’ve introduced carbon labels that showcase the carbon footprint of everything from detergent to potato chips. (‘A bag of chips emits 75 grams of carbon dioxide, 44 percent of which comes from growing potatoes and another 30 percent from the production process.’)

carbon emissions

Ideas for Change

When we start to think critically of small changes that would nudge us to make more sustainable consumption choices, the possibilities are endless. Take the use of paper towels, or paper napkins. What if signs were posted in bathrooms and at fast food restaurants that shared that 90% of customers used just one paper towel, would you still grab a huge handful?

Or what if you were given a tax incentive to decrease your carbon emissions? What if your energy usage was made public and you could compete with your neighbours to have the lowest usage? What if all supermarkets stopped providing plastic bags? What if you had to pay a greenhouse emission tax on all beef products?

 These simple examples have the power to create massive changes in our social norms.

And just like the authors state, ‘Sometimes massive social changes, in markets and politics alike, start with a small social nudge.’

small changes - big impact