Introducing nudge theory

This month’s insights are inspired by Inside the Nudge Unit by David Halpern. It describes the work he has done in behavioural science, especially with the UK and US Governments. It’s an interesting topic that companies are beginning to talk about.

Read on for an easy-to-remember model and ideas about how to apply nudge theory to organisational life. I hope you find it as thought-provoking as I do. There are also a couple of quick video clips that are really interesting, so it’s worth clicking on them too!

Introducing nudge theory

Governments try to encourage citizens to adopt behaviours or actions that are helpful for them, such as quitting smoking, eating healthily, saving for retirement, and helping the local community. But, despite being illegal, people ignore all sorts of laws (for example, speeding or using their mobile/cellphone in the car).

Nudge theory is about encouraging a particular behaviour without making it mandatory. To make behaviour change happen, it is key that you don’t shut down choices. People still need to feel they have the freedom to choose – you just nudge them in the direction you want them to go, involving very small movements.

Advertisers and marketers have known this for a long time. In his 1993 book Advertising and the Mind of the Consumer, Max Sutherland writes about the ‘feather on a seesaw’ effect. People are not persuaded to buy one product over another because of a wealth of features, but because of one tiny difference that shifts the balance of their decision-making.

Inspired by results achieved by Barack Obama in the US, David Cameron and Nick Clegg’s UK coalition Government tasked a small unit with piloting some nudge projects. Some of these examples are included below.

EAST model

The useful EAST model sums up the four essential components of nudge:



To encourage a particular behaviour, you make it easier
To discourage a particular behaviour, you make it harder

For example, magazines make it easy to sign up for a subscription, but hard to opt out.

There are plenty of things people know they should do, and would be willing to do if only they were easy enough. The easier you make it for people to do the things you want them to do, the more likely they are to do them.

Example 1
Most people know they should save for retirement, but left to their own devices, not enough people save sufficient money in the UK. The Government therefore recently introduced auto-enrolment, where employers are obliged to set up a pension plan for employees. Rather than having to opt in, staff have the choice to opt out. Within six months, the number of people signing up for pension plans increased from 60% to 80%.

Example 2
The US Government wanted to encourage bright children from poor families to go to college, and found they were prevented by the difficulty of completing all the forms. Using readily available Government data, the forms were supplied partly auto-completed. Making it easier meant applications from this group increased by 25%.


There are two main components to Attract:

1. Attract attention
We are bombarded with information these days, including newspapers, magazines, radio, social media, emails and phone calls. In order to attract our attention, information really has to stand out from the clutter and noise.

Messages are therefore changing from mass marketing to personalised marketing. A communication stands out a lot more when it has your name on it.

2. Assess and categorise
Susan Fiske is a leading expert on social cognition. She researched how people categorise things almost instantly on two dimensions:

  • whether they have a positive or negative emotional reaction
  • competence

Advertisers are well aware of this and tweak their advertising to create a positive/competent association in your mind.

Example 1
Retailers know how to entice customers by making their shops attractive. That’s why you’re greeted by colourful flowers, fruit and veg when you walk into a supermarket, maybe with the smell of fresh bread or coffee being pumped into the air.  

Example 2
Charities get more donations when they show an image of a small, sad child to pull on your heartstrings.

Example 3
You know you should exercise to stay fit and healthy, but it’s not always easy to do. You are more likely to stick with it when you pick something you are attracted to. For example, I love the outdoors. I could never enjoy going to the gym as regularly as I go horse-riding.

Example 4
The Australian Government was encouraging people to walk more. They decorated a busy Melbourne station staircase with beautiful artwork. As a result, 25% more people used the stairs during rush hour, and 140% during the rest of the day.


Similarly, this video shows how people were encouraged to use the stairs, by making the experience more attractive than the escalator.


We are social beings, influencing and being influenced by the people around us. This tendency has evolved to protect us – if we see people running away from something, we assume it’s dangerous and start running too.

This links to my article about speaking out. Some things are allowed to go on for a long time when everyone knows about it, but no-one does anything because no-one else does.

The key point is to show the behaviour you want by stressing that’s what most people do. Remember to personalise your message to make the connection with the person you are trying to Attract.

Amazon does this all the time, with its hints that ‘People who bought that item also bought this’, and reminders to ‘Share’ your purchases with others.

Example 1
The UK public smoking ban has been successful because of nudge. The law is unenforceable, but works because a new social norm has been created that makes it unacceptable to smoke in a public space.

Example 2
By communicating the message that “Only 25% of Board members are women”, it normalises the fact that women are in the minority. By changing the message to “Over 90% of companies have women on their Board”, it gives the message that female Board members are the norm and therefore encourages businesses to appoint more.

Example 3
The UK Government wanted to encourage people to complete their tax return on time. Mandatory measures had no effect. So nudge communications were introduced that stressed what most people do. By applying this element of gentle peer pressure, others were more likely to comply. Even a small percentage of people changing their behaviour saved hundreds of millions of pounds across the country.

Watch this video to see the power of social norms in action.


Timing matters. People are more likely to change their behaviour at certain times.

You need to provide support early, before bad habits are formed, or at a time of day when people are most likely to make their decision.

When you form a new team, bringing everyone together early on is a great way to build relationships and establish how you will work together, including behaviours and governance, before potentially unhelpful norms are formed.

Example 1
Social Services wanted to teach first-time mums from disadvantaged backgrounds how best to look after their baby. So a national campaign was organised to teach healthy habits before the child was born. When the baby arrived, all the mums’ routines would change anyway. While they were pregnant was the perfect time to introduce them to new purchasing patterns and parenting style.

Example 2
In my article about emotion in the workplace, I talked about Danziger’s research showing that hungry judges are more likely to send people to prison (so try not to go to trial just before lunchtime!)

Example 3
If you want people to sign up to a savings plan, time your communication for when they’ve just been paid, not the end of the month when their money has run out.

How might you use nudge in your organisation?

HR Department

When you want people to complete their annual performance appraisal, make it easy to complete, personalise it, design it attractively, and work out the best method to send it for maximum response.

Employee health and wellbeing

Use the EAST model to encourage people to use your gym facilities (if you have them), take the stairs not the lift/elevator, or sign up for your mentoring or volunteering scheme. Make it easy to buy healthy food – for example, many of my clients place free bowls of fruit around the office.

IT Department

Most people hate any new IT system. Use EAST to think how to make it better for them.

Communicating the direction

If you communicate via a ‘town hall briefing’, use EAST to encourage people to attend. Employees will then engage with and feel part of delivering your strategic goals and priorities. If all else fails, provide food!  🙂


When establishing a new team is the perfect time to set norms and ways of doing things (before bad habits set in, or conflict occurs that becomes harder to work through). This is best done with dedicated time – usually a 1-2 day face-to-face offsite – so that people can build the relationships with their colleagues, agree how best to work together, and set the direction/priorities. This is always time really well invested, especially if teams are usually geographically disbursed.

Organisational change

Use EAST to help people get through the change you are trying to effect, and especially to sustain your change efforts (often the hardest part).

I’ve spent most of my career helping organisations handle mid-large scale change, and have recently designed a methodology for an organisation that focuses on both people and task in order to effect transformation. Let me know if you’d like to learn more about this and I’ll gladly share my learning.

Next month

Distributed leadership.

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