Instead of prohibitions and rules, we are influenced to make the “right” choice by being pushed in a certain direction. Thereby a desired behavior is created without the person actually reflecting on it. Scientists call the behavior nudging, and it’s here to stay.
The term nudging means to gently push people in a desired direction, without using either carrot or whip. Instead, it is about offering a choice, where the desired behavior is the easiest to choose. With simple pushes and nudges, the individual in influenced to make choices that maximize the common good without requiring a great deal of effort.
To exemplify we make a comparison between a rule and a nudge: A road sign with the text “Playing children, maximum speed 30 km/h” is a rule. If you instead place a toddler’s tricycle right on the roadside, it is a form of nudging. The tricycle dangerously close to the road reinforces a desired behavior – that the driver slows down. Studies have shown that nudging is often more effective than rules.
The term nudging derives from the book Nudge: Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth and Happiness (2008) where behavioral scientist and economist Richard Thaler introduces the theory of how we can all become better people and make smarter decisions if we just get a nudge.
Nudging has become extra relevant in Sweden’s voluntary fight against Corona, and many different players use nudging to get us to behave correctly. An example are the stickers on the floor of stores that make us distance ourselves from others. Another is how Lund Municipality spread chicken manure on the grassy areas of the city park to prevent students from gathering and partying there.
Nudging is often mentioned in positive terms, because of it’s ability to lead people to make choices that are good for them or for the society. It could be to place fruit at the checkout line to make people pick an apple instead of candy, or painting footsteps on the sidewalk towards a trash can to reduce littering.
Of course, there are moral issues with nudging. It can also be used to influence and create behaviors that do not benefit humans themselves, despite being their own choices. It is frequently discussed where the line between nudging and manipulation should be drawn. In the UK, for example, a law has been proposed to prevent companies from using nudging aimed at children.
Life is full of choices, and they are often made in the digital world. People buy goods online, use government e-services and book hotel rooms through booking apps. In doing so, they also make choices that often are based on how the content is presented in an organized system. By manipulating that environment, one can be nudged towards a certain choice. This can, for example, be about changing which choice is checked from the start, or what comes on top of a list of possible alternatives.
Nudging apps are growing
Today a growing number of apps use some kind of nudging, and AI has grown in the area. An example of this is Google’s suggested search terms that auto-fills, based on your first letters in the search field. By displaying various suggestions, the user can be nudged to click on certain search terms. Netflix also uses of a type of nudging by letting the next episode of a TV-show start playing immediately after the previous one. Admittedly, the user can stop the video with minimal effort, but it is even easier to continue watching.
At the same time, there are also more extreme nudging apps, where the very core idea of the app is based on nudging and where the interface between service and reality is blurred. What they all have in common is that they focus on short interactions that produce waves in your own reality, long after you shut the app down. A good example is the Headspace app, which allows the user to do meditation exercises in short sessions. By putting the user in the right direction with small steps, it creates a more healthy behavior in everyday life.
Magnus Engström is CTO at FPX and he has spent a lot of time thinking about the relationship between digital services and a rewarding everyday life.
– By using nudging brands can create a long-term relationship with a user without the user even being fully aware of the scope.
Magnus also has a leisure project called Nudge. The idea was to explore the concept in an app from a behavioral science perspective.
–We have created an AI coach who will suggest activities where the user confirms whether they are accepting them or not.
The purpose of the service is to help the user develop in a direction they want or need, one small step at a time. The app uses machine learning to get to know you better, partly by analyzing the assignments you accept and how you use your smartphone, and partly by analyzing other users who have made similar choices.
– I think we’ve only seen the beginning of this, says Magnus. There is a whole new generation of products and services that work in the background and influence users by NOT demanding too much attention.
It’s also not just new apps that connects with users in this low-key, long-term way. For the same reason, Instagram chose to remove the counter for likes, for example.
– They do not want to drive an even higher engagement, but instead create a healthy commitment where Instagram becomes a natural, long term feature of everyday life. I believe that peoples relations with smartphones and other digital devices will evolve into a whole new mode. These digital services that require less focus and instead have a much more embedded role are definitely the future.