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.

Sunday, December 11, 2016


We all need a little nudge now and again right? A nudge from your friends to go talk to that person you like. A nudge from your mum to make something out of your life. Those kinds of things. But what you might not be aware of is, its not just your nearest and dearest who are nudging you. The government, corporations and businesses to which you are a citizen or potential consumer - known as choice architects are nudging you as well. Choice architects design the environments in which people make choices, and these designs influence the way that we, the choice makers, make decisions. (Rockrohr, 2008).

Here is an example of a company boss Rory Sutherland nudging his employees at Ogilvy to use less paper towels.

Nudging is based on the principle of libertarian paternalism; which is the call for policy to guide the choices of individuals in order to improve the well being of choice makers. Sunstein and Thaler (2008) view this approach as directing decision making in a deliberate way but still respecting people’s free choice by not blocking or making any choices harder or impossible. (Oullier, Cialdini, Thaler & Mullainathan, 2010).

Although nudging is not meant to restrict people's decisions, choice makers know how people think and can set up an environment for consumers to make choices, that benefit the company financially. For example, commercial subscriptions. Subscription services such as Netflix and Amazon Prime, offer free services to consumers for a few months but start charging after a certain date. Many people forget to cancel these services or do not complete the administrative steps needed to cancel them. A large amount of consumers then end up being charged for a service they did not need or want. Put in this way nudging can sound quite sinister but nudging isn’t as evil as it sounds.

Nudging is most often used for good. Here are a few examples of how:

In a famous study conducted by Cialdini & Griskevicius (2008), these researchers attempted to promote energy conservation in guests by getting them to reuse their towels when staying in a hotel room for multiple nights. This decreases the amount of energy used to clean the large amount of towels used only once. In order to “nudge” hotel guests to reuse towels, they used the principle of compliance to social norms. People are more likely to follow the suit of others if the behaviour is seen as widely accepted amongst the majority. In this study, this was done by adding a notice in the bathroom stating the percentage of people who re-use their towel instead of requesting a new one. The notice encouraged a lot more people to reuse their towels. By adding that others had done the same, it was more effective than just adding an message about how reusing towels would save a certain amount of energy (figure 2.) This effect was even more prevalent when the notice described the behaviour of the group which occurred in the same environment, so for example when adding to the notice “X% of guests in this room reuse their towels.”  This is a cheap and efficient way of changing behaviour and has positive ecological advantages.

Other examples include:

Cities have implemented speed indicators to drivers that let them know if they are above or below the speed limit with a facial expression indicator. If the driver is above the speed limit they will be shown a sad face and if they are within the speed limit they will be shown a smiling facial expression. These facial expression indicators have been more effective in reducing speed, than traditional monitors which show the driver's speed in numbers. (Oullier, Cialdini, Thaler & Mullainathan, 2010)

Organ donation
In some countries, people are automatically registered as organ donors when they die and to be taken off this register they have to opt out. This opting out takes a number of admistrative steps to complete. Compared to other countries in which citizens opt in to be a donor, the former method has 80% of population as organ donors whereas the latter has 20% of population as organ donors. This method of being automatically registered as a donor makes people less likely to opt out because of the steps needed to do this and because it goes against social norms which may view them as exhibiting selfish behaviour by opting out. (Oullier, Cialdini, Thaler, Mullainathan, 2010)

Okay, so it’s clear that Nudging is not some evil mind controlling mechanism used to always exploit us as consumers or control our lives. It does push us to make decisions that are best for ourselves and our society. However, ethical issues will always remain around nudging. It might be for the greater good, but do these choice architects really have the right to influence our behaviour especially when we aren’t aware?


Goldstein, N. J., Cialdini, R. B., & Griskevicius, V. (2008). A room with a viewpoint: Using social norms to motivate environmental conservation in hotels. Journal of consumer Research, 35(3), 472-482.

Oullier, O., Cialdini, R., Thaler, R. H., & Mullainathan, S. (2010). Improving public health prevention with a nudge. Economic Perspectives, 6(2), 117-36.

Rockrohr, R. (2008, May, 16). Thaler Explains How “Choice Architecture” Makes the World a Better Place. Retrieved from

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, 72-81.

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