Critics of nudging argue that it is no longer equal to society’s problems. Nudges try to change behavior by altering the environment in which we make decisions rather than resorting to bans or incentives. For some, this makes them too focused on the individual when our attention should be on wholesale systems change. For others, nudges aren’t focused on the individual enough: rather than tweaking their environment we should be trying to change people’s psychology at a deeper level.
Nudging can certainly seem like a small solution in a time of big problems. Nudges, per the original book’s subtitle, were supposed to improve our health, wealth, and happiness. Instead, we’re living through an era of pandemics, climate change, inflation, political division, and war. If this is the legacy of a decade of nudging, at dozens of nudge units, in countries around the world, isn’t it time to let it go and seek out stronger medicine?
Stronger medicine would certainly be welcome. We would be deluded if we thought that nudging could remove the need to build millions of homes, fix our energy system, start doing real contingency planning for emergencies, reform how we do science, or choose better leaders.
Nudges are a valuable, modestly resourced and dramatically underused way of improving people’s lives. Abandoning them now would be like discovering aspirin then immediately shutting down production because it doesn’t cure cancer.
But believing that we face such a choice is its own delusion. Nudges are a valuable, modestly resourced and, as we shall see, dramatically underused way of improving people’s lives. Abandoning them now would be like discovering aspirin then immediately shutting down production because it doesn’t cure cancer.
Nudging’s value stems from its modest but unusual success in solving two hard problems. One is changing people’s behavior, in a sustainable way, in challenging contexts such as health, crime, and education, in the messiness of the real world. The second is getting stuff done in large organizations, particularly government. Most attempts at either one of these fail: over 80 percent of social projects and programs don’t work; big reform efforts are generally stymied, or backfire.
By contrast, nudges do get implemented—albeit with a lot of hard work behind the scenes—and when they are they tend to do some good. Looking at trials from two nudge units, Stefano DellaVigna and Elizabeth Linos find that a sample of low-cost, light-touch nudges do better than their control groups by 8 percent on average. In a landscape littered with failures and overclaiming, small robust improvements that affect thousands of people are worth having.
Some effects are much larger. In the U.K., switching the default on pensions to automatic enrolment increased the proportion of eligible 22- to 25-year-olds with a workplace pension from 20 percent to 88 percent. And spurred by the recent, lively debate about nudges’ “average” effect size (and whether that concept makes sense), there is a renewed push to understand exactly which nudges work in which contexts, and why. More effective, more reliable nudges should be the result.
Nudging’s value stems from its modest but unusual success in solving two hard problems. One is changing people’s behavior … The second is getting stuff done in large organizations, particularly government.
But might we still be overinvesting in nudges? Perhaps they have proven so popular that the best opportunities have been exhausted, making it time to redeploy resources elsewhere?
Unfortunately, the opposite is true: we haven’t picked even the lowest hanging fruit. A back-of-the-envelope calculation for central governments can illustrate this opportunity. A typical government might have 10 large departments of state (a department for education, for example), each with 10 directorates (such as the organization in charge of apprenticeships and technical education). And each of these could easily have 20 nudge-able systems (a system through which young people can sign up for apprenticeships, say). Each system can accommodate multiple nudges: you could try boosting sign-ups by pre-filling parts of the form, for example, while also reminding students at a timely moment. One government × ten departments × ten directorates × twenty systems × three nudges each gets us a total of 6,000 possible nudges.
Compare that to the 165 trials from the DellaVigna and Linos paper. These constitute the total output of two of the largest nudge units operating in the United States across federal, state, and local governments over the four years from 2015 to 2019. Those 165 trials are simultaneously a massive, pathbreaking achievement and a drop in the ocean, more than an order of magnitude short of what’s possible.
Now, 6,000 nudges in one government might seem like a laughable, unachievable number. And with the nudging infrastructure we’ve got today, it would be. While the number of organizations applying behavioral science has risen fast—into the hundreds by one recent count—most teams are still new, small, or reliant a handful of enthusiasts with other day jobs. Teams producing nudges in volume are rare. But they don’t have to be. Here we arrive at the biggest reason to be bullish on nudges: the chance to move from a cottage industry to mass production.
If there is anything that the global setbacks of recent years should have taught us, it’s that forward progress cannot be taken for granted. In nudging, we’ve got a tool with which to make some of that progress.
Today even disciplined, output-focused units can spend only a small fraction of their time actually designing nudges. Funding projects, garnering executive support, getting access to systems and data, randomizing interventions, monitoring implementation, collecting results, then analyzing them: all of these essential steps must be negotiated afresh each time. Simplifying, automating, and batching them could cut the cost per nudge by a large multiple. For decision makers in organizations, it could tip the return-on-investment case for applied behavioral science from promising to overwhelming. Thousands rather than dozens of nudges per year could be within our collective reach.
Even then, nudges wouldn’t fix everything. Any behavioral scientist with other ideas for taking on our biggest problems should be given every encouragement to put them into practice. But if there is anything that the global setbacks of recent years should have taught us, it’s that forward progress cannot be taken for granted. In nudging, we’ve got a tool with which to make some of that progress: to make it a bit easier to start a business, a bit less confusing to choose the right school for your child, or a bit less of a headache to file your taxes. These are hard-fought, sometimes incremental, but real improvements to people’s lives. With imagination and persistence, we could be producing many times more of them. As far as I’m concerned, that’s an exciting place to be.
Disclosure: Ed Bradon is a member of the BIT, which provided financial support to Behavioral Scientist as a 2021 organizational partner. Organizational partners do not play a role in the editorial decisions of the magazine.