The power of behavioural change: more than a nudge
Updated: Jun 14
Many organizations look at behavioural change as a way to solve a problem relatively cheap and easy, by stimulating many people to make the right choices with just a small adjustment or intervention. Often, the term "nudging" is used for this. But is this form of nudging effective? Only in the short term. On the long term, behavioural change is way more powerful if we implement it in systems and policy, improving the entire situation.
Why is nudging often not effective in the long term?
Nudging is actually a behavioural change technique to subtly stimulate people to make certain choices by giving them a push (a nudge) in the right direction. Like other behavioural change techniques, a nudge can be effective, especially in the short term. But rarely, a nudge is effective enough to change behaviour permanently.
This is because nudges are often used as symptom relief. There is a problem, and you try to reduce the outcomes of this problem without really tackling the cause. This is comparable with using pain killers, without wondering where your pain comes from. That's fine if there is no serious problem. But if something is wrong with your body, taking pain killers is not a long term sustainable solution. The same goes for a nudge. It often has a great effect at first sight, but it is not a long term solution for a real issue.
In our view, a nudge, in the form of making a single, minimal adjustment that should cause major changes in behaviour of a large group of people, as its definition is picked up by many from the book Nudge (Thaler & Sunstein, 2009), is not the best way to initiate behavioural change. With nudges, behavioural change experts unintentionally focus too much on the individual, rather than on systems and polities (Chater & Loewenstein, 2022). As a result, a lot of money, time and energy is put into all kinds of small interventions, without changing the system to tackle the real issue. This is a growing criticism on nudging from behavioural science.
So, what is the power of behavioural change?
We are convinced that applying knowledge about behaviour only is effective in the long term, if this knowledge is used throughout the entire system or policy. By this we mean that the entire situation must be critically examined and optimized in order to change long-term behaviour. A nudge can be part of the solution, but is never a replacement for important and necessary policy changes that affect behaviour as well.
That is why we do not focus on one or a few nudges, but on a complete strategy to create a situation in which sustainable behaviour becomes the default. We believe that this is the only way to change long-term behaviour. It requires more commitment at frist, but yields much more in the long term. It is the way to really make a positive impact on the world with behavioural change.
Example 1: In order to stimulate waste collection and separation, more is needed than just a fun garbage bin
Fun, crazy, striking and surprising waste bins are often used to encourage people to throw their waste in them. This is a relatively easy, cheap and attractive intervention, which, in the right situation and in the short term, can certainly ensure that more people dispose their waste the right way.
But in the long term, these types of waste bins are often not really effective as a solution. It is important to consider why people may or may not be inclined to dispose their waste properly in the first place. To do this, we have to take a critical look at the situation, the system and policy. The conclusion is then, for example, that waste separation is too complicated, it is often not clear which waste belongs in which waste bin, and there are not enough bins that facilitate waste separation.
From a behavioural perspective, placing a fun waste bin is not enough to change real behaviour. Instead, the situation should be taken seriously. Why does it provoke unwanted behaviour? And what adjustments can we make to prevent this. Waste bins should above all become clearer, not more fun. There must be more separated waste bins, even if this makes it more complicated to collect waste. Collaborations between waste processors, producers and municipalities, etc. are necessary in order to set up the entire system properly. This requires more effort at first, but ultimately results in a much greater effect.
Example 2: the supermarket is still set up to make as many (unhealthy) food choices as possible
Although health and sustainability are becoming increasingly important for supermarkets, selling products is and remains their core business. Initiatives by supermarkets to encourage consumers to make healthier choices usually place a great deal of responsibility on the consumer. Think, for example, of signs, banners and labels with information about which choices are and are not healthy or sustainable. These are great initiatives that help conscious and motivated consumers to make the right choices.
Yet the situation is still too often designed to make more unconscious, unhealthy food choices. For example, think of the discounts on unhealthy products, stimuli such as scents and colours, and the candy rack at the checkout. As a result, people often continue to make unhealthy choices.
To avoid this, a small, simple nudge is not enough. A supermarket should be set up completely differently. A wider range of responsible options, for example, in combination with fewer (promotions on) unhealthy options. That is not a small, fun and easy nudge, but in the end it really does lead to a change in behaviour.
Chater, N., & Loewenstein, G. (2022). The i-Frame and the s-Frame: How Focusing on the
Individual-Level Solutions Has Led Behavioral Public Policy Astray.
Thaler, R.H., & Sunstein, C.R. (2009). Nudge: Improving decisions about health, wealth, and