When Nudge Comes to Shove - How your actions are shaped by public policy decisions

By Jack Karnaghan

What we do and how we think are often the by-product of subtle changes in our surroundings. Even the actions we take that seem intentional and purposeful can be influenced by unnoticed environmental factors. Behavioural scientists, political theorists and economists have been studying these factors for decades, with a new term being coined over the years - “nudge theory”.

In 2008, Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler’s book, “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness” defines the concept as:

“any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

In short, ‘nudges’ present indirect suggestions that make a particular choice more attractive in order to sway the decisions of its target audience. Through these small changes to the environment that people encounter on a daily basis, often without notice and at very little cost, our choices can be influenced greatly.

An interesting example of how nudge theory has generated positive reinforcement within the public scope has been evident within the South Korean community. In Seoul, stairways at Euljiro 1-ga Metro Station have been made to not only visually look like piano keys, but produce a sound when stood on. Passersby, whose attention would no doubt be attracted by such an installation, would be tempted to generate the sound first-hand and walk up the stairs instead of the taking the escalators. Unbeknownst to these people, the purpose of the stairs to encourage exercise has just been successful at a low cost and relatively low intrusive scale.

This piano example, however, can arguably be seen as quite unsustainable in the long run mainly due to the ongoing variable costs of generating piano sounds with each day it operates. With this said, implementations of nudge theory need not be so elaborate to be effective and this is shown to be the case again in Seoul.

In the roads near elementary schools in the southern Gyeonggi province of Seoul, you can find yellow footprint-shaped images painted on the edge of the footpath to prompt schoolchildren to pay attention to moving vehicles before they cross. With the purpose of preventing accidents, after a year since its installation, accidents in the school zone dropped more than 20 percent according to the Gyeonggi Nambu Provincial Police Agency. Without directly telling the public via signage or a public announcement, an implementation of nudge theory once again proves its utility in society.

Although these examples in Seoul show more of the conventional side of a ‘nudge’, there are those that are rather obscure. For instance, the urinals in the men's bathrooms at Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport have a housefly etched in the ceramic with the purpose of encouraging better ‘aim’. Thaler and Sunstein have specifically commented on such a ‘nudge’ within their aforementioned book:

“As all women who have ever shared a toilet with a man can attest, men can be especially spacey when it comes to their, er, aim. In the privacy of a home, that may be a mere annoyance. But, in a busy airport restroom used by throngs of travelers each day, the unpleasant effects of bad aim can add up rather quickly. Enter an ingenious economist who worked for Schiphol International Airport in Amsterdam. His idea was to etch an image of a black house fly onto the bowls of the airport’s urinals, just to the left of the drain. The result: Spillage declined 80 percent. It turns out that, if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it.”

These examples go to show the flexibility of nudge theory and its capacity to be implemented, measured and controlled on many different levels of success, no matter how fun or bizarre. It’s easy to see how this could be manipulative, so it becomes no surprise when the widespread use of nudges by governmental bodies around the world receive criticisms from a diverse list of philosophers and economists.

What if I want to live an unhealthy lifestyle or not be distracted by a housefly etching at a urinal? Is making my own choices for me a legitimate government concern, or even worse, what if these subtle changes to our daily surroundings become so ingrained into what we perceive as being normal that the populace never fully picks up the nudges that have influenced them, especially under the control of draconian politics?

According to Evan Selinger, an associate professor of philosophy at Rochester’s Institute of Technology, Sunstein and Thaler’s book, Nudge, outlines the idea that only a basic understanding of how people think along with some creativity is required to form a nudge (Selinger and Whyte 2012, pp. 26-31). To the contrary, Selinger echoes that “Nudges are usually designed on the assumption that everyone has the same cognitive biases. But this is only valid in some situations.”

Not only is there the concern of distinct cognitive biases within a population, there are ethical ones that must be considered as well. Philosopher Luc Bovens from the London School of Economics echoes the sentiments found within Cato Institute’s article by Jonathan Klick and Greg Mitchell, “Infantilization by Regulation” (Klick and Mitchell 2016, p. 32), asserting that the foundational assumption (which nudges are based on) that people do not understand the choices that should be made in their best interest can be incredibly infantilising.

This assumption highlights one of the most concerning issues about nudges - they can be potentially coercive. Whilst research by Roskilde University determine that these potentialities may be blown out of proportion (Burgess A 2012, pp. 3-16), there is a definite propensity for exploitation, particularly nudges that go against the principle that they should be transparent in nature.

While there are many hindrances and impediments within nudges and the potential ramifications that can be dealt on the community, nudges still contain a wealth of beneficial prospects to society. If these concerns were mitigated, Sunstein and Thaler’s initial ethos of nudges to improve “health, wealth and happiness” (Thaler and Sunstein 2008) may well be realised in full effect in the near future.


Scientific American 2015, Should Governments Nudge Us to Make Good Choices?, accessed 9 July 2018, <https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/should-governments-nudge-us-to-make-good-choices/>

The Korea Times 2017, Seoul aims to use 'nudge' theory to spur economy, accessed 11 July 2018, <https://www.koreatimes.co.kr/www/nation/2017/12/356_241600.html>

The Washington Post 2017, What’s a urinal fly, and what does it have to with winning a Nobel Prize?, accessed 20 July 2018, <https://www.washingtonpost.com/news/wonk/wp/2017/10/09/whats-a-urinal-fly-and-what-does-it-have-to-with-winning-a-nobel-prize/?noredirect=on&utm_term=.c213d89c44ad>

Works that Work 2013, Aiming To Reduce Cleaning Costs, accessed 20 July 2018, <https://worksthatwork.com/1/urinal-fly>

Klick, J. and Mitchell, G., 2016. Infantilization by regulation. Regulation, 39, p. 32, accessed 25 July 2018

New Scientist 2013, Nudge: When does persuasion become coercion?, accessed 26 July 2018, <https://www.bushwalkingholidays.com.au/pdf/NS-Nudge3.pdf>

Selinger, E and Whyte, K 2012, ‘Nudging Cannot Solve Complex Policy Problems’, European Journal of Risk Regulation. Cambridge University Press, no. 1, pp. 26-31, DOI: 10.1017/S1867299X0000177X.

Burgess, A 2012, ‘‘Nudging’ Healthy Lifestyles: The UK Experiments with the Behavioural Alternative to Regulation and the Market’, European Journal of Risk Regulation. Cambridge University Press, no. 1, pp. 3-16, DOI: 10.1017/S1867299X00001756.

Thaler R and Sunstein C 2008, Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness, Yale University Press, Connecticut.

Jack - first year B Commerce/Laws student; professional tea drinker.