My partner and I often talk about Nudge Theory, because my partner hates how manipulative it is. I on the other hand wondered about its potential for self-care, through self-nudging to help you improve your quality of life. The result of my wondering is this article. I hope you enjoy it.
What Is Nudge Theory
Nudge Theory is where you shape an environment so you can influence the likelihood that a specific option is chosen by others while maintaining the freedom of choice (Imperial College London; and (Thaler and Sunstein, 2009, as cited in Kosters and Van der Heijden, 2015). Ideally, the purpose of these nudges is to help influence people to make better decisions (The Conversation).
One benign example is placing certain items at eye level in supermarkets so they’re selected more often than those at floor level (Arno and Thomas, 2016). This is often used to help people find items as branded products are more recognisable. For some, this means just grabbing the branded item, while for others, it means they know where to look for non-branded alternatives. Meaning your freedom to choose is still there. This is also why you have chocolate around the checkout area, as you’re more likely to be tempted to buy such items if you’re stuck queuing.
What Is Self-Nudging
Nudge Theory has the potential to get us to behave in ways that aren’t bad, just not always in our best interest. Like with the chocolate bars around the check-out. But even if Nudge Theory could only be used to help people make better choices, my partner would still hate it. However, I think Nudge Theory could be very useful if we use it as self-nudging because there’s always consent and awareness that Nude Theory is being used if we set it up to nudge ourselves to better decisions.
If we use Nudge Theory to alter our own decision environments to help empower ourselves to make our desired choices (Boosting) then no one is being manipulated without their consent. This makes self-nudging the more ethical version of Nudge Theory.
Does Nudge Theory Work?
According to The Conversation, by the end of 2021, there was a lot of excitement about a comprehensive analysis of research done into Nudge Theory which confidently showed how effective it was. However, since then people have been talking about the general issues with Nudge Theory science. One such concern was that researchers overall rely on certain types of experiments. This suggests they’re cheery picking the experiments best likely to give the desired results.
There is also an inherent problem with all scientific research publications. For too long, research that fails to deliver the expected results rarely gets chosen for publication or is even submitted. This makes it impossible to find examples of experiments failing. This is often referred to as the “publication bias”. Thus, it’s hard to say with any certainty when any experiments that have failed might not have been published.
It’s this problem with research publication that makes me want to start a journal that’ll publish all the studies that fail to deliver on their hypotheses because this is a massive big problem for the sciences. Failing is an important part of science, and it should be published so we can learn. Please let me know if anyone has advice on how this can be done. I could call the journal “Unwanted Science Results”.
Nevertheless, studies such as Arno and Thomas‘s (2016) systematic review of 31 Nudge Theory studies have shown Nudge Theory’s effect. They conducted the study to determine whether Nudge Theory strategies are successful in changing adults’ dietary choices for healthier ones. They found a 15.3% increase in healthier dietary or nutritional choices. This might not seem like much, but it does prove the theory.
Again, because of publication bias, it’s hard to know the true picture of Nudge Theory research. But it’s not all bad, because this takes the burden off of Nudge Theory being solely responsible for potential behavioural changes (The Conversation). In a real-world setting, there are a lot more variables that would need to be considered for starters. Humans are also very complex animals.
An interesting example of Nudge Theory not leading to the desired result comes from Kosters and Van der Heijden (2015). They state that there are various studies that show people who were already engaging in desired behaviour voluntarily, who were then offered a reward to continue, had their willingness undermined as they considered the reward insufficient for their effort.
It’s probably a good thing Nudge Theory isn’t powerful as the claims were seeming to state, because of its George Orwell 1984 applications if it was.
Applying Nudge Theory To Self-Nudging
So what does that mean for us and applying Nudge Theory to improving our wellbeing through self-nudging? Well, there are many strategies that already exist that are being used by organisations already, which we can adopt so they become self-nudging.
For example, your dentist will likely send you an email or a text reminding you to book an appointment or you may get a reminder a few days before a doctor’s appointment to remind you you have one (Effectiviology). Another one that’s more relevant since the cost-of-living crisis is the availability of information about electricity usage. The aim is that you’ll use that information to change your energy habits.
Now I don’t know about you, but I rely on such reminders to make a dentist appointment or to remember when my next of many medical appointments is. That’s because although doubt has been shed on the power of Nudge Theory, it can still have an effect. It’s just not changing an entire nation to do the right thing during covid powerful, which is what the UK government tried to do during covid. But it still has its place. And we can use that to our advantage.
Thus, setting your own series of reminders can help you engage in self-nudging so you’re going in the right direction. Some of my hospital appointments are done months if not a year in advance, so I often set a series of reminders to make sure I keep the date free. I also keep my appointments pinned to my fridge so I’m regularly reminded of them.
Speaking of the fridge, the use of self-nudging visibility (how easily see the item is), accessibility (what obscures might get in the way, such as the number of doors that would need to be opened), and availability (if someone is worried about running out of the item) are potentially important components of Nudge Theory’s effectiveness.
A study by Campisano (2021) investigated the effects of self-nudging on healthy eating and dieting using self-nudging visibility, accessibility, and availability as part of their study. The study consisted of 17 males, 82 females, and one non-binary participant. The results showed that healthy eating could be affected positively by the visibility of healthy eating nudges. But they couldn’t find a positive link with nudge accessibility and availability.
Campisano’s (2021) study also couldn’t find a positive connection between visibility, accessibility, and availability when it came to exercise. This could be because people wear exercise clothes as everyday wear, meaning that it has lost their potential to work as self-nudging. But that’s just my guess.
Anyway, back to the fridge. If you want to use Nudge Theory through the use of self-nudging then this study points the way through the placement of healthier food options at home.
Put your healthier food options front and centre in your fridge and hide less healthy choices in the back. If you’re anything like me, I pretty much forget what food I have at home as soon as I’ve put it away. Therefore, when I go looking for something to eat, if I have all the healthy stuff at the front and more easily accessible, and hide the less healthy stuff, then I’m more likely to forget I even have less healthy options. Thus, I’ve just nudged myself towards healthier eating. It doesn’t guarantee I’ll eat healthier, but it increases the odds that I will.
I’m not denying myself the choice of picking something less healthy. I’m just increasing the odds that I won’t make that choice. And, if this works enough times, then it’s possible the less healthy choices stop being bought in the first place. But that might be wishful thinking on my part. Just think of Nudge Theory and self-nudging as an aid to helping establish healthy habits in the context of helping with your wellbeing. So, exploit the use power of positioning and manipulate its accessibility for your own needs (Today).
Another thing I do is to keep something that will function as a prompt in my eyesight. I do this with my medication and pretty much anything I want to do. If I want to remember to change my sheets, I’ll position a set of clean sheets where I’ll see them so they’ll prompt me to change them. I could just do it at the time I place the sheets as a prompt, but that’s not how my procrastinating mind works.
Another good example of self-nudging could be to take a packed lunch with you when you go out, as that will help you avoid eating something unhealthy from a shop. This is one of the reasons people have fruit bowls on the counter or kitchen table. To help avoid temptation.
If you wanted to increase the amount of water you drank, then keeping a bottle of water on your desk or in your eye line will increase your chances of reaching that goal. I always carry a bottle of water with me wherever I go. It’s little things like this that can help us nudge ourselves in the right direction. It’s also worth noting that to-do lists also work along the same line as self-nudging.
- Reminders and prompts.
I’ve already talked a lot about using prompts and reminders, so I don’t think we need to talk about that one in any more detail. So let’s move on to framing. How we decided to perceive our choices can affect the likelihood of what decision we make.
For example, I rarely ever take the lift if I’m only travelling a couple of floors. I make this choice because I framed this decision as being between being wasteful and lazy and not being wasteful and lazy. For me, it’s a waste of resources to use a lift because I don’t have a disability that requires I do. And it’s lazy because I am capable of walking up the stairs and it’s often quicker to do so, especially if it’s only a single floor.
With accessibility, it can be as simple as removing temptations from our lives and making healthier or positive choices more accessible. Using the food as an example again, having a fruit bowl on your kitchen counter and not having chocolate in the home will make it easier to pick fruit.
Accountability is something I need a lot. The best way to tap into this is to make a public commitment to the desired behaviours you’re trying to nudge yourself towards. A less effective way, at least for me, is to make a commitment to myself. I’ve been trying to do this by using a healthy reward: a tattoo.
Healthy rewards have their place in Nudge Theory. For example, you may have a child that is too scared to jump into the pool, but if you sweeten the pot with the promise of a popsicle, then your child is more likely to jump in (Skip Prichard). This isn’t too dissimilar to giving yourself healthy rewards (are popsicles considered a healthy reward?) for doing things that’ll benefit your wellbeing. As I’ve said, I’ve used this on myself by using tattoos and piercings to get me to do the things I know I should do.
Nudge Theory does have its controversy, because of its manipulative nature and potential publication bias. Is it right for organisations and governments to try to manipulate our behaviours, even if it’s for our own good? I fear that’s a question we’ll likely be arguing about until our species dies out. There’s also the question of if it could be used to manipulate people into doing things that aren’t in our best interests.
Luckily, self-nudging isn’t controversial because we’ve chosen to use Nudge Theory on ourselves to reach our desired goals. Nudge Theory can even be a great way to remind yourself to engage in self-care, which many of us could benefit from. So how could you apply Nudge Theory to help you achieve your wellbeing goals through self-nudginh? Let me know in the comment section below.
As always, leave your feedback in the comments section below. Also, please share your experiences with Nudge Theory in the comments section below as well. Don’t forget, if you want to stay up-to-date with my blog, then sign up for my newsletter below. Alternatively, get push notifications for new articles by clicking the red bell icon in the bottom right corner.
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Unwanted Life readers.
Arno, A., & Thomas, S. (2016). The efficacy of nudge theory strategies in influencing adult dietary behaviour: a systematic review and meta-analysis. BMC public health, 16(1), 1-11. Retrieved from https://bmcpublichealth.biomedcentral.com/articles/10.1186/s12889-016-3272-x.
Campisano, C. (2021). Where Do You Keep Your Running Shoes? The Influence of Perceived Control and Self-Nudging on Health Behavior (Master’s thesis). Retrieved from https://studenttheses.uu.nl/handle/20.500.12932/40724 and https://studenttheses.uu.nl/bitstream/handle/20.500.12932/40724/Campisano%20%286106048%29%20thesis.pdf.
Kosters, M., & Van der Heijden, J. (2015). From mechanism to virtue: Evaluating Nudge theory. Evaluation, 21(3), 276-291. Retrieved from https://openresearch-repository.anu.edu.au/bitstream/1885/71637/8/01_Kosters_From_Mechanism_to_Virtue_2015.pdf and https://journals.sagepub.com/doi/abs/10.1177/1356389015590218.