Ways you are being influenced without even realising it

Positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions are a powerful way to influence our decision-making. In Nudge Nudge, Mary Ann Sieghart investigates how Nudge Theory has pushed us into becoming fitter and richer, without us even realising it. Nudge Theory is “a way of prodding us to behave a bit better”, Mary Ann says. “It’s just a gentle tweak to encourage us to take the right decisions”, and most of the time we won’t even notice it’s happening. So what are the ways we might see Nudge Theory in action in our everyday lives?

1. As you queue at the till

When you queue by the till in a supermarket, you’ll be nudged into making impulse purchases: we’re all used to seeing low-price point products like chewing gum or lollies and been tempted to pop them in our basket. “Take the sweeties away from the till”, Mary Ann suggests, and “people are finding they’re eating less sugar.” Where these counter sweets are replaced with multi-vitamins, nuts or fruit, customers will start getting a health boost!

2. As you wait for a train

When you wait on a station platform for your train to pull in, you may not be told verbally to stay away from the edge. But if the powers that be “paint a line on a station platform”, Mary Ann says, then you are “less likely to get too close to the train.” Those yellow lines are a Nudge in action!

Indirect suggestions are a powerful way to influence our decision-making.

3. When you read your post

David Cameron was a quick adopter of Nudge for policy enforcement purposes. David Halpern ran Cameron’s Behavioural Insights Team, or “The Nudge Unit.” One area where they did a lot of work, Halpern says, was “encouraging people to pay their tax on time” – and they got powerful results just by “adding a single line to a letter” issued by HMRC. Inserting the statement “‘most people pay their tax on time, you’re one of the few yet to do so’ – so that’s one line of ink – led to a 5 percentage point or a 15% increase in the payment rate”, says Halpern.

4. As you pay into your pension

Across the UK we are being nudged into paying a pension, through auto-enrollment. “If we’re given a form to opt-in to a pension scheme”, Mary Ann says, “it tends to slip down to the bottom of our to do list… But if we’re automatically opted-in, as we now are in the UK, it helps us do what we always knew we ought to do, which is to put money into our pensions.” Cass Sunstein, co-author of Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, explains how “just by switching from an opt-in system (where people have to sign up) to an opt-out system (where people are automatically in) countless people all over the world are going to gave an economically easier time in retirement.”

5. When you order your lunch

If you describe food with a variety of adjectives – whether they’re geographic or descriptive – it makes the food taste better.
Richard Shotton, advertising guru

Some food outlets have started removing currency symbols from their price lists because there’s “lots of evidence” to suggest that “if you remove the pound signs people become less price sensitive,” author and advertising guru Richard Shotton says. You’re also being nudged with “florid descriptions” of food. Shotton says research conducted by Professor Brian Wansink suggests that “if you describe food with a variety of adjectives – whether they’re geographic or descriptive – it makes the food taste better”. In Wansink’s study students were asked to rate “bean soup” or “Tuscan bean soup” and the results showed that the broth tasted “8% better when it had those beautiful descriptions.” Every time you choose Alaskan salmon or Cornish cream, you are experiencing Nudge!

6. On social media

One Nudge method is to hint at a particular choice by pointing out that other people have behaved in a certain way. We all have a natural instinct to follow the herd! Many of us were nudged to vote in the referendum by Facebook: users of the social media platform were able to click a button and announce to their friends that they’d voted, encouraging those friends to do the same.

7. When you buy a flight

Nudge isn’t always used for good. As consumers we are constantly faced with Nudge, deployed by retailers in order to sell more goods and services. Have you ever been on an airline’s website and seen the phrase, “only two left seats left at this price”? The airline is piling the pressure on in a bid to get your business.

8. When you shop online

There are numerous ways that online retailers nudge us towards a particular purchase. They might use a larger font for a more expensive product, so it stands out from the cheaper options. They might label an item the “most popular choice” with existing customers because they know we like a product to be endorsed by others. And they might line up a whole range of similar products under the heading “People who bought that also bought this”. Seems we can’t resist following the crowd!

A nudge towards Radio 4