Nudging for Sustainable Behavioral Change

23.04.2018 education
Chalk drawing of someone throwing away waste

Nudging is a tool that social and behavioral science has proven to be effective for creating desirable behavior changes. In this article we will discuss what exactly nudging is, why it is so effective, and how the four types of nudging can be used to encourage people to make more sustainable decisions in their everyday lives.

Every single day, we are faced with innumerable decisions. Can you imagine how exhausting it would be if we had to make each of these decisions consciously? Naturally, we don’t. Instead, we rely on mental pathways to cope with all of the options we are constantly faced with. In fact, 45% of the decisions we make every day are made completely subconsciously. Even the choices that we do make consciously are impacted by context, habit, and these pre-established mental pathways. This is called “bounded rationality;” when we have a decision to make, our rationality is confined by the context in which that decision is made.

This bounded rationality is precisely why it is so difficult to change individual’s behavior. Research has shown that the presentation of new information (such as labeling or information campaigns) alone is not enough to change an individual’s daily decision making. Instead, the subconscious behavioral biases that inform our decision making can be targeted to encourage sustainable behavior change. This is where nudging comes in.

A nudge is an alteration in the context in which a decision is made, encouraging consumers to make a certain desirable choice, but doing so in a way that is unobtrusive and that does not actually limit the range of options available to them. There are four tools that make up the “nudging toolkit.” These are: simplifying and framing information, changing the physical environment, changing default options, and using social norms. Lets take a look at each of the four types of nudging and how they can be used to encourage sustainable behavior.

Simplifying and framing information

We do not process information objectively. The context in which we receive information and  how that information is presented play a big role in how we process new information, as well as what we choose to do with that information. By making information easier to understand, and by delivering it in a way that aligns with the values of the person receiving the information, people are more likely to act on the information in a desirable manner.

From a sustainability perspective, this has a lot of practical implications. Often times, information about climate change or other sustainability issues can be really complicated and overwhelming. This can result in people automatically tuning it out, or else feeling immediately defeated. Presenting information in smaller, easier to comprehend pieces and coupling them with actionable information (i.e. not only saying what the problem is but also what they can DO about it) will make people react less defensively to that information, predisposing them to choose to take action.

Changing the physical environment

Altering the physical environment to encourage people to make certain choices is a tried and true method; just look at any grocery or retail store. Studies have shown that things closer to the front of the store or closer to the checkout counter are more likely to be purchased. Thus it is no accident that customers are made to walk through a maze of sweet snacks or small, knick-knack items as they stand in line for the register; the idea is that customers will be enticed to purchase these items even though they may not have entered the store with the intention of buying them.

However, the power of the physical environment doesn’t just have a role to play in influencing purchasing habits. Using smaller plates at meal times has been proven to make people take less food, both reducing overeating and food waste by a significant percentage. Making recycling bins bigger, more conspicuous, and more clearly labeled are all ways to nudge people to recycle more. Even just making recycling receptacles more attractive to the eye and more easily accessible than trash bins encourages people to recycle waste that they may otherwise throw in the garbage out of habit or convenience.

Changing default options

In response to the overwhelming number of choices we are faced with every day, our brains have a tendency to simplify things by choosing the “default setting”. In other words, we tend to avoid new behaviors. Thus, when sustainable options are presented as an “extra,” or something that consumers have to seek out intentionally, consumers are less likely to make the sustainable choice. This is often not because consumers don’t care about the sustainable alternative, but because they can’t be bothered to seek it out. Making the default option the more sustainable one is a way to nudge people to make more sustainable choices, because it means they have to opt outof sustainability rather than actively opt in.

One example of how this could be used in everyday life is to make double-sided printing the default setting on printers in the office. Another example is, when presenting utility or service options to customers, providers may present the more sustainable option as the default (if the cost difference between the options is low enough.) Both of these examples result in the elimination of the need for people to think about actively making the more sustainable choice.

Using social norms

An individual’s perception of what ought to be done, or otherwise what is most often done by their peers, has a strong influence on their own actions. Calling to mind such social norms when a person is presented with a decision will often encourage them to choose the option that is in line with what they perceive to be the values of their peers or community. Further, presenting individuals with a comparison of how their actions match up with those of their peers will encourage people to actively change their behavior to match that of their peers.

An example of how social norms can be used to encourage more sustainable behavior is providing performance reports. For example, when households are sent a comparison of how their energy use compares with that of their neighbors, they are more likely to then actively try to reduce their energy consumption. Similarly, highlighting how your office or department has managed to reduce energy use or recycle more may turn these behaviors into social norms, thus encouraging people to more actively strive to simulate them.

Further Reading

Nordic Council of Ministers. Nielsen, Anne Sofie Elberg, et al. “Nudging and pro-environmental behavior,” 2016.

Swedish Environmental Protection Agency. Mont, Oksana et al. “Nudging — A Tool for Sustainable Behaviour?” Report 6643, December 2014.