Behaviour Change

PROPAGANDA FOR CHANGE is a project created by the students of Behaviour Change (ps359) and Professor Thomas Hills @thomhills at the Psychology Department of the University of Warwick. This work was supported by funding from Warwick's Institute for Advanced Teaching and Learning.

Friday, December 9, 2016

Nudge: Of Magician’s Craft and Peanut Butter


Well, actually I can. Everyone can.
Look around you. Look carefully, what do you see?
Because the magician’s crafts are supposed to be invisible.

Living in the 21st century, we don’t tend to believe in magic, right? Invisible forces? Hocus Pocus? Communicating with dead people? None of them are real. (Or do they?)

But consider the following. Imagine not having all those powers and solely rely on our seemingly limitless creativity in interacting with the world. What will the end product looks like? 

Of all the possibilities, nudge is one of them. Nudge in literal sense translates to the action of pushing slightly or gently, especially with the elbow or to get someone's attention. Nudge in behavioural sense on the other hand is the behavioural design approach of coming up with low cost, or if possible zero cost intervention. This approach is formally known as ‘libertarian paternalism’ and popularised by giants such as Cass Sunstein, Richard Thaler and David Halpern. Paternalism is basically the notion of helping people in achieving their own goals, while libertarian is basically the attempt of helping in a certain way without restricting choices. So how does this work?

To better understand this concept, it is best to be familiar with the phrase ‘choice architecture’ first. Basically, we make choices every second of our life. Be it to eat healthier, or the product should we consume. There might be more than 10 peanut butter brands in a supermarket. Why do we choose a particular peanut butter? If someone does not know anything about peanut butter, how do they make their decision?

Choice architecture in brief is the approach of changing the way we present choices to people (i.e., making a particular choice more available than others). It’s the idea of making the good decisions easy and making the bad decisions rather impossible by ‘assisting’ people in choosing something or eliciting a particular behaviour. Maybe you think you choose the peanut butter because it has the best packaging but have you considered that it might just because it is the easiest for your hand to reach them? Benefitting from this, supermarkets charge producers higher price to place their products on eye-level shelves as opposed to knee-level shelves and above-head-level shelves.

Human decision making is usually irrational in nature. We like to think that we are rational in our decisions and judgements but this is far from being the truth. We are often fell for a better heuristic design. So how do nudgers benefit from this?

Similar to supermarkets, nudgers does not design choices. They basically design the context in which people make choices to maximise ‘compliance’ to a particular direction.


Leonard, T. C. (2008). Richard H. Thaler, Cass R. Sunstein, Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. Constitutional Political Economy19(4), 356-360.

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