Nudge Theory

How are your New Year’s resolutions going so far? Did you even make any this year? We’re now 10 days in to 2019 and the chances are that a few of us are starting to rethink (or maybe just forget) our plans and goals for the year ahead. I’ve written before about how to stick to your New Year’s resolutions  in terms of how our beliefs and attitudes about a behaviour influence the likelihood of actually carrying it out. This year, I’m going to focus more on the little things you can do to make the chances of sticking to your goals more likely.

Nudge Theory and Diet

Nudge theory is an often used technique in public health and government policy to try to get us to slightly change our behaviour (Jones et al, 2014). Through little reminders, or ‘nudges’ we are encouraged to live healthier lives – for example by swapping sweets at supermarket checkouts for healthier snacks, customers are more likely to buy these items instead. One recent study at my university found that reorganising the supermarket on campus so that fresh fruit and vegatables were next to the entrance led to people buying more of them, compared with when they were at the back of the store (Walmsley et al, 2018). This result shows how something so simple and low cost can help people choose a healthier option. The important thing about a nudge is that it still requires you to make a choice. No one telling you what to buy, there are no warnings on packaging on unhealthy items (see cigarette packets) and their is no economic advantage to the consumer.

Of course moving the location of food in shops is just one small change, however there are many ways in which nudge theory can be effective in helping people make healthier dietary choices. One systematic review collating existing evidence and estimated that nudge interventions led to a 15% increase in healthier choices (Arno & Thomas, 2016). Examples of nudges in the included studies were: adding labelling about the calorie content of meals to a menu, putting snacks in different sized containers, or changing the size of plates or serving utensils (if you want your portion size to look bigger, use a smaller plate, if you want to cut down on your portion, use a smaller serving spoon).

Nudge Theory, Health & Wealth

Nudge theory doesn’t just help us improve our diets. It can also be used as a method to help us improve our general health and financial wellbeing. In their now famous text, Thaler & Benartzi (2004) set out a way in which nudge theory could be used to encourage people to save more for their pensions. As opposed to having to save more straight away, employees were approached and told they could increase the percentage of their wages they save in their pension when they get their next raise. The amount they save goes up each time they get a raise, until they reach a specified maximum amount. It was designed to make saving feel as attractive as possible: the delayed increase in savings until after a raise helps to reduce loss aversion in terms of less take-home pay.

Research has also indicated how a simple nudge can help us become more physically active. Bellettiere et al (2017) trialled an intervention at an American airport in which they placed signs which pointed to the stairs to the car park (as opposed to the escalator). They found that just the presence of the sign posts was enough to increase the number of people using the stairs.

How it works

A nudge is often a change in the environment, as opposed to a change initiated by the individual. It works by influencing automatic cognitive processes (Marteau et al, 2011), so often we are not aware that we have been influenced at all. However, this has led to some people questioning the ethics of using nudge theory to alter behaviour, as it is influencing us without our knowledge or consent. As long as nudging is only used to improve our health then surely it’s not a bad thing, but what if it was used for a more malicious purpose? Let me know your thoughts in the comments below.


Arno, A. and Thomas, S., 2016. The efficacy of nudge theory strategies in influencing adult dietary behaviour: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC public health16(1), p.676.

Bellettiere, J., Liles, S., BenPorat, Y., Bliss, N., Hughes, S.C., Bishop, B., Robusto, K. and Hovell, M.F., 2017. And She’s Buying a Stairway to Health: Signs and Participant Factors Influencing Stair Ascent at a Public Airport. The journal of primary prevention38(6), pp.597-611.

Jones, R., Pykett, J. and Whitehead, M., 2014. The geographies of policy translation: how nudge became the default policy option. Environment and Planning C: Government and Policy32(1), pp.54-69.

Marteau, T.M., Ogilvie, D., Roland, M., Suhrcke, M. and Kelly, M.P., 2011. Judging nudging: can nudging improve population health?. BMJ: British Medical Journal (Online)342.

Thaler, R.H. and Benartzi, S., 2004. Save more tomorrow™: Using behavioral economics to increase employee saving. Journal of political Economy112(S1), pp.S164-S187.

Walmsley, R., Jenkinson, D., Saunders, I., Howard, T. and Oyebode, O., 2018. Choice architecture modifies fruit and vegetable purchasing in a university campus grocery store: time series modelling of a natural experiment. BMC public health18(1), p.1149.

Photo by Raul Petri on Unsplash

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