Article about nudging. Also check out the article on nudges in a nicely formatted pdf!

The statement ‘9 out of 10 people read this article’ is a nudge. More generally, a nudge is a way to change behavior without prohibiting options or significantly changing its costs (Thaler & Sunstein, 2007). To change behavior we could also think about making reading the article mandatory. This would not be a nudge, as it prohibits options. Paying people money to read this article is also not a nudge, as it changes costs. The last few years, I have worked on the subject of nudges. This resulted in among else a Dutch popular-science book with Denise de Ridder entitled Nudging (De Ridder & Tummers, 2019). I also developed a model that shows that we should not only study where behavior change techniques like nudges are effective, but also take the support for behavior change techniques like nudges seriously (Tummers, 2019). Nudging – in other words, softly steering – have been used to change many types of behavior. This ranges from increasing the number of people who save for pensions by changing the default (Thaler & Benartzi, 2004), nudging physicians to using evidence based medicine by using reminders (Nagtegaal et al., 2019), to even reducing suicides in Japanese train stations by installing blue lights (Matsubayashi et al., 2013; Richarz, 2018). The goal of this article is to provide a short introduction to nudges for the general public. To do this, I will describe three often-used ‘nudges’: social-norm nudges, default nudges, and ‘make it easy’ nudges. Check out the article on nudging.

Social norm nudges

The first type of nudge I will discuss is the so-called ‘social norm’ nudge. The statement ‘9 out of 10people read this article’ is a social norm nudge. As people are inherently social, we care about what other people do and think. In this specific case, we could easily contest the nudge. For instance, to what extent is it true? If we would define people as ‘all people in the world’, it is definitely not true. If we define it as all people who found this article in their email inbox, I hope it is true. Social norm nudges have been used extensively to change behavior of citizens, often with strong effects (John et al., 2019). A prime example is the study by Hallsworth et al. (2017). Hallsworth and colleagues aimed to increase the number of people who pay their taxes on time. In their study in the United Kingdom, they included the sentence “Nine out of ten people pay their tax on time” in a letter to people who have not yet paid their taxes. This caused more people to pay their taxes on time. This is a low-cost intervention which helped the tax authority to accelerate millions of pounds in revenue.

            There are various kinds of social norms. A descriptive social norm describes what most people do, while an injunctive social norm describes what most people approve or disapprove of (John et al., 2019). The title of this article is an example of a descriptive social norm, while ‘9 out of 10 people should read this article’ is an example of an injunctive social norm. In addition, policy makers can also make use of dynamic social norms. They do this by indicating that a particular behavior is increasing or decreasing. For instance, Loschelder et al. (2019) tested a dynamic social norm to increase sustainable behavior. The norm read: “More and more customers are switching from to-go-cups to a sustainable alternative. Be part of this movement and choose a reusable mug”. This increased the use of reusable mugs by 17%.

Default nudges

In addition to social norm nudges, there are other types of nudges. One of the most famous ones is changing the default. The default is the standard setup, for instance the standard search engine on your telephone, which is often Google. People generally stick with the default. Many do not change their search engine, although it is quite easy. You go to settings and change it to for instance Bing or DuckDuckGo. When policy makers change the default setting this can therefore have powerful effects. The new default becomes the norm and is not often manually changed by the users.

An example illustrates this. Policy advisors of the Ministry of Education, Culture and Science aimed to reduce student’s student debt by adjusting the default (Van der Steeg & Waterreus, 2015, also discussed in De Ridder and Tummers, 2019). The problem was that many former students have a high student debt and have difficulty to pay this debt. Before 2009, the default was that students automatically received the maximum monthly loan amount after they no longer received a bursary. If they wanted to borrow a lower amount, they had to indicate this themselves. So they could adjust it, but just like behavioral science would predict: they usually did not do anything. They stayed with the default and borrowed the maximum amount. The policy advisors adjusted the default in 2009. From 2009 on, students received as a default the amount that they received in the last month of the bursary phase. This amount was often quite a bit lower than the maximum. Here too they could easily adjust it, but they remained with the – now much lower – default option. The effect of this change to the default was impressive: the percentage of students who borrowed the maximum amount fell from 68% to 11%. The average loan fell approximately 130 euros per month. Changing the default therefore had strong effects on student behavior.

            The example above shows that defaults can have desirable effects. On average, defaults seem to work quite well (Jachimowicz et al., 2019). However, there are a few instances that defaults backfire (for instance Narula et al., 2012).

Make it easy nudges

In addition to nudging by highlighting social norms and adjusting defaults, a third nudge which can change behavior is the ‘make it easy’ nudge. These nudges aim to reduce hassle. Various desirable behaviors can be quite hard, such as increasing diversity in universities staff and students, eating healthy when healthy food is expensive and hard to come by, or cleaning up your attic so that you can insulate your home. Here, nudges can help. For instance, a study by the Behavioral Insights Team showed that university attendance amongst minorities increased 8% when forms were filled in and submitted on behalf of the applicant (Service et al., 2014). Likewise, making undesirable behavior harder can also deter undesirable behavior. That is why we lock our bikes and do not give our password to everyone.

            In the public administration literature, there has also been a recent important discussion on the way governments make certain behaviors of citizens harder. Herd and Moynihan (2019) describe this in their book ‘Administrative Burden’. Bureaucracy, confusing paperwork, and red tape make it harder for people to get desired public services like welfare benefits and could even make it impossible for some to vote. In a way, such administrative burdens are the opposite of nudges: they make it harder to enact some behaviors. Thaler calls them ‘sludges’ (Thaler, 2018). Of course, whether something is desirable or not is ultimately a normative choice, and some people might strive to make welfare benefits harder to receive (Herd and Moynihan, 2019). In addition to describing administrative burdens, scholars have also studied whether ‘make it easy’ nudges could help in relieving them. For instance, Linos and Riesch (2019) studied how reducing administrative burden helped recruit police officers. They among else showed that applicants who were offered easier processes completed more tests and were more likely to be hired. Hence, ‘make it easy’ nudges could help recruit police officers. In their words (p.26): “Our findings mostly confirm one of the basic principles of behavioral science: that simplification works.”


The three types of nudges – highlighting social norms, changing defaults, and making desired behavior easier – illustrate how soft steering can change behavior. Policy makers or managers do not always need a proverbial stick or carrot to make people behave differently. Sometimes, nudges are quite effective. Other times, they fail or even backfire. Hence, the effectiveness of nudges is not straightforward, and can be dependent on among else the type of behavior to be changed, the context, and the personal circumstances of the person being nudges (De Ridder & Tummers, 2019). Field experiments (preferably preregistered), where a random set of people receive the nudge and others do not, are paramount in testing whether a nudge works in a particular situation. Do not assume that what works in one situation will work in another. Test, and test often.

Furthermore, in addition to effectiveness we must acknowledge that nudging is a normative activity: what is ‘desirable behavior’ is often up for debate. Do we find it desirable that are organizations are more diverse, that we become organ donors, that we take the train instead of the airplane, that we save for our pensions, that we become vegetarians? Not everyone will agree with all these statements. In addition to effectiveness, we should therefore also analyze to what extent nudges are supported by citizens, organizations, and politicians (Tummers, 2019).

Concluding, changing behavior by using nudges is all around. If you know about nudges, you will start seeing them all around you, from the supermarket to the train station to the requests you get from the government. The coming years, I hope to contribute to the study of behavior change to help solve societal problems, and analyze the role of nudges herein. Nudging is important policy instrument that should be studied in depth by public administration scholars. The public administration community can also collaborate with other disciplines. I see various possibilities for interdisciplinary collaboration, for instance with computer science to predict which people would be most receptive or resistant to nudges, with psychology to analyze the underlying psychological mechanisms of nudges, and with philosophy to analyze the ethics of nudging.


De Ridder, D.T.D. & Tummers, L.G. Nudging: Makkelijke oplossing voor moeilijke keuzes. Amsterdam: Prometheus.

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Herd, P., & Moynihan, D. P. (2019). Administrative burden: Policymaking by other means. Russell Sage Foundation.

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Narula, T., Ramprasad, C., Ruggs, E. N., & Hebl, M. R. (2014). Increasing colonoscopies? A psychological perspective on opting in versus opting out. Health Psychology33(11), 1426-1429.

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Service, O., Hallsworth, M., Halpern, D., Algate, F., Gallagher, R., Nguyen, S., Ruda, S, Sanders, M. (2014). EAST Four simple ways to apply behavioural insights. The Behavioural Insights Team Publications, Cabinet Office.

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Thaler, R. H., & Benartzi, S. (2004). Save more tomorrow™: Using behavioral economics to increase employee saving. Journal of political Economy112(S1), S164-S187.

Thaler, R.H. & Sunstein, C.R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press.

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