“If you want to encourage someone to do something, make it easy.”

Richard Thaler

Have you ever spotted a small sticker of housefly in the men’s urinal and pondered the reason behind it? The logic is simple that whenever a man sees a fly, he aims at it but little did he know that the aim of the architect is to reduce the spillage of urine and the results show that it reduced the spillage by 80 percent. The architect or designer just ‘nudged’ us to make the outcome of behavior better.

The word ‘Nudge’ literally mean a gentle ‘touch’ or ‘push’ but if you have come across the term ‘Nudge’ in many popular articles, it means something more interesting that, I think, most of us don’t know. Its theoretical meaning has been popularized by the two American scholars, Richard Thaler and Cass Sustein, in their widely acclaimed book Nudge, Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness. Let’s first understand the term and then how to create a ‘Nudge’.

Nudge: A Nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. The nudge must be subtle, cheap and easy which steer people’s choices in directions that will improve their lives.

Cover of the Book 'Nudge'
Book Cover

Who is Choice Architect?

A choice architect has the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions and they can make major improvements to the lives of others by designing user-friendly environments. Don’t assume that it is specialized field for psychologists, because we all as parents, salesperson, doctors, lawyers, bosses etc. can be choice architects and influence the choices other people make. For example, a good building architect must realize that location of stairwells, sitting arrangement or a bathroom etc. can make workplace more interactive and fun.

Consider another illustration, where in a school canteen, the aim of administration was to increase the intake of fruits and nutritious foods without taking the choice of students to eat fast foods. They just ‘nudged’ the kids’ decision making by displaying more nutritious food first and fast food on the last shelves and it worked just by changing the arrangement.

How to create a ‘Nudge’?

Before understanding how to ‘nudge’, let’s start with a universal but an unacknowledged fact. We humans are irrational creatures and we don’t make choices in our best interest. Why otherwise would we smoke when we know there are chances of cancer, obese when we know there is risk of heart disease, we don’t put seat belts even when it is for our safety, we don’t save and invest to secure the future, we follow the herd when other people may be wrong, over confident about our strengths etc. in short we all are creatures of our emotions, habits and willpower and we are not rational creatures. We can only create a ‘Nudge’ if we accept that we all are biased and understand how we behave. (These biases in human behavior will be covered in series of articles later).

5 ways to create ‘Nudge’

Expect Error

All Humans make mistake and a well-designed system expects its users to commit mistake and tries to correct the error as much as possible. Like if you don’t buckle up your seat belt or don’t close the car doors you are buzzed, remember that life-saving message on Gmail “Did you forget your attachment?”, many banks ATMs force us to take our card back before taking the cash as many of us forget to take the ATM card because when people finish a main task, they tend to forget other things, these all are examples from our surrounding which try to ‘nudge’ our behavior by recognizing this inherent problems that we all make errors.

Give Feed back

The best way to help humans improve their performance is to provide feedback and well-designed systems tell people when they are doing well and when they making mistakes. The reason for the success of the smartwatches or digital cameras these days can be attributed to this factor also that they provide better feedback than previous technologies.

Understand Mapping

Some tasks are easy like choosing a flavor of ice cream and other tasks are hard like choosing a medical treatment for heart problem. A good system choice architecture helps people improve their ability to ‘map’ and make them select the options that will make them better off. For example, cameras advertise their megapixels because it helps us ‘map’ the quality of photos or other mapping like 3 apples can make one glass of cider. So, a good choice architect will make investment or medical policies such that the customers can evaluate the outcome.

Default or Status Quo

Default or Status Quo implies a tendency of people to stick with current situations or being happy with default options. Remember the idea of automatic renewal for subscription of Amazon or Netflix, when we download a software default option is the ‘regular’ one and not the ‘custom’ one. Many European countries like most recent France are moving to a presumed consent for organ donation in which the law requires them to be donor unless they opt out and it has increased organ donation in many countries.


Incentive based methods are more efficient to nudge behavior otherwise it will be difficult to continue to harness the power of ‘Nudge’. ‘Nudge’ should provide any economic or social incentives. The most relevant example is cap and trade system for pollution control, where cap is imposed on emission and if a company successfully reduce their emissions, it can sell, or “trade” unused permits to other companies.

So finally, a mnemonic device emerges that we must remember


 Understand Mappings


 Give Feed

 Expect Error

 Voila: It’s a NUDGE


We can improve the quality of human lives in every domain by understanding human behavior and see where all people systemically go wrong by analyzing the power of subtle ‘nudge’ applied in creative ways. Such ‘Nudge’ definitely improves the outcomes by reinforcing good behavior or making bad behavior difficult by tweaking the environment.

Before saying Adieu…

The authors caution that ‘Nudge’ must never take away the freedom to choose otherwise forcing people to choose is not wise action as it takes away liberty. So the guiding principle is to create ‘Nudge’ in only such domains, where individual preferences are not important and by altering some choices, we can improve our lives.

Stay tuned for next book review, till then stay safe and curious.

Happy Reading!

Amit Malani

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