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Nudging: What is it and how can we use it ‘FORGOOD’?

Nudging: What is it and how can we use it ‘FORGOOD’?

What do school canteens, flu vaccinations and medical appointment reminders have in common? They are all areas where behavioural nudges have been used.

Nudging has become a buzzword within behavioural science, with governments worldwide establishing “nudge” units and investing countless resources in those units. But what is nudging, and how can we ensure it is used ethically?

First conceptualised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their 2008 book, ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness’, nudging quickly exploded into the worldwide political consciousness as a concept that has changed how governments and organisations implement change.

A nudge, as defined by the UN Innovation Network, based on the work of Thaler and Sunstein (2008), is “[a] behaviorally informed intervention, usually made by changing the presentation of choices (i.e., the choice architecture) to an individual, that alters people’s behaviour in a predictable way. Nudges include warnings, reminders, information disclosure, simplification, and automatic enrolment. Nudges preserve freedom of choice; they do not forbid any options or significantly change economic incentives”. Therefore, a nudge has three key features:

  1. It does not force people to engage in a particular behaviour, 
  2. It preserves freedom of choice, and 
  3. It does not offer large economic incentives. 

Nudges are quick and inexpensive changes - especially when contrasted with enforcing legislation or policies, which is slow and expensive - to encourage people to make certain choices by shaping their environment. Placing fruit at eye level is an example of a nudge, whereas banning junk food is a legislative intervention. The affordability of nudging has seen this approach quickly gain popularity in both public and private sectors. This is best demonstrated by the proliferation of ‘nudge’ or ‘behavioural science units’ in governments globally, including the UK, US, and Australia. 

Nudges have potential applications in almost every industry, from health to food choices. Famous applications include annual flu vaccination campaigns, healthier food at school canteens, organ donations, tax, and SMS reminders for medical appointments.

So how do nudges differ from other interventions?

A nudge is a behavioural science intervention, but it is not the only type of intervention available. Nudging and other behavioural science interventions exist as valid ways of addressing behavioural science issues, and sometimes one approach is more appropriate whilst other times it can be most effective to use both simultaneously.

Nudges can be likened to the 2-minute noodle version of a behavioural science intervention, as opposed to other types of interventions, which are more comparable to a home-cooked stew.

Other behavioural science interventions are developed through extensive research, collaboration and co-design with the key stakeholders. Appropriate measures are then designed to address a specific behavioural problem within a specific context. These research-based recommendations can reveal new information or insights, which can then be used to inform changes. These recommendations are more robust as they focus both on the short and long-term impacts of an intervention.

In comparison, nudges can be designed with as much or as little research as deemed necessary by the nudge-makers, and thus do not always provide new information. They do not involve any mandated changes (such as taxes or fines), tend to focus more on the immediate short term impacts, and are cheap to implement.

The key differences are summarised in the below table:

The dark side of nudging

Despite the efforts of Thaler and Sunstein to ensure that nudging is used beneficially, these techniques could be used in a deceptive way, which occurs when the target population’s best interests are not kept in mind. This phenomenon was termed “sludging” by Thaler (2018), and it presents itself as making specific options more inaccessible to the target population. Thereby discouraging them from partaking in a behaviour that would be beneficial for them, but detrimental for the nudge-maker. Essentially, sludging occurs at the benefit of one party and the cost of another. 

Leonhard K. Lades and Liam Delaney presented the FORGOOD framework in their 2020 paper “Nudge FORGOOD” to address these ethical concerns. This framework provides a framework through which nudges can be developed, to ensure that ethical considerations are met. Simply, each letter of the FORGOOD acronym stands for a quality or value that should be applied to the nudge. Namely, Fairness, Openness, Respect, Goals, Opinions, Options and Delegation. 

Each stage of the framework is summarised in the below image and table:  

A worked example: Bob vs Office lights

Let’s apply it to a hypothetical scenario, to contextualise this framework. Your good friend Bob is the boss of a company, and he wishes to make the office more eco-friendly by encouraging his workers to switch off the lights when they leave. This also saves money on their electricity bill. Bob wants to make this change by introducing signage around the light switches, and you offer to help him apply the FORGOOD framework to this nudge; as summarised below:

Confident that this nudge is ethical and was made in goodwill, Bob implements his idea. He manages to reduce both the carbon emissions and operation costs of his office; and the only complaint is from Janet the receptionist, who says that she already turns out the lights when leaving the office. 

In Conclusion

Nudges are a cheap and effective tool that influences behaviour by changing how a range of options are presented to individuals. The effectiveness of nudges should not be underestimated; however, it should not be overestimated either. When reviewing the application of nudges to public health policy, one study found that nudges can be used to improve and leverage more traditional approaches. Other opinion pieces have echoed these sentiments, recognising that nudges are one, but by no means the only tool, to shape behaviour. And lastly, nudges should always be used FORGOOD, or in other words, in the best interests of the target population. This can be ensured through ethical frameworks, such as Nudge FORGOOD. 

If you want to find out more about behavioural change frameworks and how they can be applied, enrol in one of our courses.

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