Could nudging bridge equality gaps?


In Sweden, only about 2.4 % of total CEOs in listed companies are female (SCB, 2014). In fact, there are more male CEOs named Johan than there are CEOs who are female. Still, women educate themselves to a greater extent and in addition even manage their studies better than men. So, It is not fair that there are so incredibly few female CEOs even though they actually have the right skills for the job. One contributing factor that is likely to induce this equality gap is the gender bias. E.g. we are much more likely to implicitly think CEO – men, and Nurse – female. Or, when you first saw the picture above – what was your response? You probably thought of something relating to boys and girls and colour of the babies clothes – although the picture doesn’t even explicitly say that the babies are a boy and a girl. Still, that was your association. As we are not exposed of seeing females as CEOs or men as nurses, our sub-conscious won’t either.

Evidence suggests that the gender bias is automatically activated as soon as evaluators in hiring processes learn the sex of a candidate. Moreover, it may lead to unintentional discrimination rather than objective judgment. It happens that the recruiter is under the influence of gender bias and unconsciously ascribes group stereotypes to the candidate.

Harvard University researchers (Bohnet et al., 2012) showed in an experimental study some interesting implications regarding gender bias and the hiring process. They imply that gender bias played a role when determine positions that women and men were judged to be qualified for. The study builds on insights from prospect theory that our mind tends to make relative judgments rather than absolute judgments. E.g. whether you think your coffee tastes good – depends on what coffee you have drunk before. It is very hard to calibrate if it is a “nice cup of coffee” if you have nothing to compare it to, you base your judgment on whatever comes to mind.

When it comes to hiring and promotions for upper management positions (such as CEOs), these decisions are often done one at a time or as a separate evaluation. Therefore, the authors wanted to test if the candidates were evaluated differently in groups, where they could be comparatively judged. The study involved 654 participants (men and female); 100 played the role of candidates seeking new positions and the rest played the role of employers. The candidates performed math and verbal tasks, activities that according to the authors could trigger gender bias, as females are believed to be worse at math tasks and better at verbal tasks than males. The employers subsequently were asked to choose which candidates were qualified to go on to a second round of competence tests.

In the separate evaluation, employers chose men over equally qualified women for a male-stereotypical assignment. In fact, they even preferred lower qualified men for male-stereotypical assignments to higher performing women for the task. Likewise, the employers preferred woman to equally qualified men for female-stereotypical assignments. However, tested in a joint evaluation, where the decision-making environment showed information about performance of both male and female candidates, the gender gap disappeared.

The study therefore proposes that evaluating candidates in groups or in joint evaluations can mitigate the gender bias. It enables the recruiter to compare candidates, which increases the likelihood that employers would assess them based on their performance and potential, rather than gender stereotypes.

Equality gaps are structural complex problems that need to be ambushed from many different angles. This type of “evaluation nudge” mentioned above is one of many tools that may be effective. I think that by being aware of equlity biases such as the gender bias, and understand why they are there, that your association (sometimes an image or a feeling) is there because you have been exposed to that link frequently (e.g. that girls babies might wear pink more frequently than boys) you might at least be one step closer at building the bridge over equality gaps.

Whether it is unintentional or not, we are all prejudices. We make certain associations, cognitive shortcuts through things that we have seen, heard or believed in our lives. If society is custom in a certain way, our mind tend to follow its path which sometimes lead us to unconsciousness discriminating misjudgments. For an eye-opener, I strongly recommend you to do som Implicit Association Tests (IAT) here. Most of you will then realize – seeing is sometimes unconsciousness believing. Be aware that your brain takes these shortcuts, which sometimes makes you unintentionally prejudice, racist and gender discriminating. If you are aware of these biases and when they occur – you can actively work against them and hopefully even change the associations that they bring.


Bohnet, I., Van Geen, A. V., & Bazerman, M. H. (2012). When performance trumps gender bias: Joint versus separate evaluation. HKS Faculty Research Working Paper Series RWP12-009, John F. Kennedy School of Government, Harvard University.

Statistiska Centralbyrån (SCB). Kvinnor och män i arbetslivet, 2013, available on the internet at:  (last accessed on 24 November 2014)

Looks don’t matter! The case of popcorn and more…

Too much Popcorn?


To give a short answer to that question if looks matter:


If that does not satisfy you, read on, I will delve deeper into why appearance (looks) do matter. For the record, I am talking here about product ‘looks’ although much of what is said could also be applied to the way we ourselves and other people look. But no  need to cramp it all into one single post.


And there is nothing we can do about it?

A bold statement but it is true. A few striking examples are:

  • We tend to eat more popcorn if we’re given a bigger amount of it. In fact, this is true regardless if the popcorn is nice or of bad quality. The thing is, we like to think that we only over-eat because we actually enjoy the things we eat, but in fact, we over-eat because we simply get more. Is it that simple? In a study by Wansink and Kim (2005) it was. They provided Philidelphian moviegoers with medium or large sized containers of free popcorn, half of them were stale, the other half was crispy fresh. The first finding was that people actually eat more popcorn if they get larger containers. This is already rather remarkable, why would we eat more simply because there is more? But it is in human nature to use the resources we have avilable, so OK. What is more remarkable, however, is that, regardless of taste, we eat more. Those with crispy popcorn ate 45 % more popcorn when given large containers, but those who ate stale popcorn also ate more popcorn (33 %) given large containers. The conclusion: we do not eat more because we like it, but because we have more of it available.

Sidenote: as Wansink and kim suggest, we can ‘use’ this trick as well to benefit society, simply by increasing the portion sizes of healthful food, like snack carrots.

  • On the same topic, Wansink (and Ittersum, 2013) did another study on plate sizes. They found that the size of plates is a visual ‘cue’ for us humans from which we conclude how much food we’re supposed to take. For instance, in a Chinese buffet restaurant, larger plates amounted to people serving themselves 52 % more food, eating 45 % more and wasting 135 % more food in total compared to using smaller plates. A similar study was done by Kallbekken & Saelen in hotel restaurants. They found a staggering drop of 20 % of food waste just by reducing plate size and the social cues accompanying the filling of plates (they basically encouraged people to take less in single goes, but come back more often, thus making the portions people take more suited for their eventual consumption).

Sidenote: these examples show excellently how nudges (like small changes in plate sizes) can benefit all actors in the game. People eat less, which is generally in their health benefit, restaurant owners have to spend less money on food that is simply being wasted anyway, and the environment benefits as well because less waste is in general a relief for all involved ecosystems (nowadays the global landscape).

  • A third striking example is that of detergents. Not so much detergents themselves, but their packaging, to be clear. The package matters in terms of quality of detergents. No matter what detergent is really in the package… People were given detergents in either all blue, all yellow, or blue & yellow packages and consequently asked about the quality of said detergents. Subjects were pretty much convinced that the blue & yellow packaged detergent was by far the best one (of course it wasn’t, it was exactly the same detergent as in the other packages). What’s more, people named all sorts of reasons for this detergent being better, anything but that they liked the package more. In fact, they liked it more because of the package, but no one really consciously knew this.

Sidenote: This study was done some while ago (Packard, 1957) but the importance of packaging and colours has been proven time and time again. In fact, I bet that subconsciously you are ‘aware’ that light products are very often packaged in light blue tints, and packaging often takes colour ‘inspiration’ from the product it contains. Butter packages are often golden, as the butter itself (or so an ideal butter would be). What does the package colour contribute to the product? Nothing! Yet it still makes us more prone to buy a golden package than a black one, when we are buying butter. When we’re buying Heinz tomato ketchup, we will look for red (unless we want the one with reduced calories!). This is not really a conscious effort, although it is not hidden either, once could possibly think about this if one wanted to. Hence, this ‘nudge’ of the physical environment does not force anyone to go for a certain gold-coloured package, it simply nudges us. It signals to us “this package contains an equally golden product”.

The point made with these illustrations (and many others not mentioned here) is that looks matter. Not only that, looks are always there, and so there really is not at all a ‘questionable debate’ about whether we should or shouldn’t nudge. Unless we plan to sell butter and detergents without package all together, that is, we will always need a package and so a ‘choice architecture’. The question remains only, ‘how’ should we use packaging. To the benefit of only the seller, or also to the benefit of the consumer and the environment?




“Bad Popcorn in Big Buckets: Portion Size Can Influence Intake as Much as Taste, “ Journal of Nutrition Education and Behavior, 2005, 37:5 (Sept-Oct), 242-5, Brian Wansink and Junyong Kim.

“Portion Size Me: Downsizing Our Consumption Norms,” Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2007, 107:7 (July), 1103-1106, Brian Wansink and Koert van Ittersum.

“Nudging’ hotel guests to reduce food waste as a win-win environmental measure”. Economics Letters,2 2013, 119 (3): pp. 325-327.Kallbekken, Steffen and Håkon Sælen, 2013.

“The hidden persuaders”, Vance Packard, as read in “Subliminal” by  Leonard Mlodinow (p. 23) Knopf Doubleday Publishing Group, 2012

What’s in a word?

What is in a word, indeed. Obviously, there’s letters, but just as obviously so, that is not all there is to words. Wording and framing of messages has effect on outcomes, and that isn’t exactly a novel finding either. Obviously, the way you put things matters (“Get your ass off the chair and do some jogging” does sound a bit less pleasant than “hey, you could go jog a bit for a while, after reading this post”). But even deeper, the words themselves can matter.


Take a trash can that says ‘trash’. Well that is just wonderful. In case you were wondering what the can with bag in it was doing in the corner of the room, there you have it. Perhaps it is even sided by two other bins, But what if the trash bin instead said “landfill“. Now instead of thinking yourself a hero for tossing your stuff in the bin, rather than leaving them on the table, floor or cabinet, you are reminded of the detrimental effect your behaviour has on the environment. No one likes landfills (with an exception to raccoons, maybe). You might reconsider your ‘offence’ of throwing away trash in that bin, if it could actually be recycled as paper, glass or plastic.


Now there is nothing in the word landfill that is preventing you from throwing the trash in the bin. Nor is it a lie, per se, because much of the stuff that is thrown in the regular bins will either get burnt or end up on a landfill. The mere word is just a small alteration in the decision-makers environment, and it can affect our behaviour without forcing us to. In other words, this would be considered a nudge (in the right direction).


Quite negative, though, to go around naming trash bins for landfills. What if you really do have trash and it does not fit in any other category but the ‘landfill-bin’? First of all, my compliments, because it most likely means you’ve already recycled all the rest. Secondly, there is also an alternative strategy. take the paper bin. What if it said ‘save the forest, recycle paper’, rather than ‘paper’? Here are some other great slogans to consider (from here): “Money grows on trees: Recycle paper” or “Reuse old news!” or “Why recycle glass? The answer is clear”. One mmarvellousthing I remember from my childhood in Holland, were the paper trash cans in an amusement park there. They said (in a slightly mmetallicsounding audio-recorded voice that is unnoticed by kids) “paper here” (it rhymes in Dutch, ‘papier hier’). What was great, however, was the immediate feedback you got when you tossed something in. It said ‘thank you!’. The result: kids started begging parents and others around them for trash, so they could toss it in. Of course I am deviating a bit from ‘words’ here, since this is more related to feedback but the point is, as always: small changes in the environment can mean the world!


The point of it all is that with wording (sometimes specific words, sometimes sentences) we can hope to change people’s behaviour without infringing on their own decision making power. This is in psychology also known as ‘framing’. Tversky & Kahneman’s famous framing effect is an example. See the choice they gave people in two different treatments:

Experiment set-up by Tversky & Kahneman (1981)


When framed positively, most participants chose for saving 200 people, rather than gambling. But when framed negatively, participants instead chose to gamble. Odd, isn’t it? the idea behind it, according to Tversky and Kahneman, is that people react differently to things in a loss frame or a gain frame. In a negative frame, people avoid risks, but look for them in positively framed situations. Note, though, how effectively all of the presented options are the same in expected outcomes.


Anyway, let’s not dive too deep into the seminal paper of Tversky and Kahneman (although I do recommend it, if you haven’t read it before). The point, once again, is that message wording and framing matters. Moreover, what matters is if we are looking at preventing or promoting behaviour. Say what? Preventing would be to ‘stop people from drinking’ and promoting would be to ‘stimulate people to bike to work more often’. Or promoting recycling versus preventing the tossing of waste in the standard bin. We learn from prior studies in health behaviour that gain frames work better with prevention behaviour, but seriously, there are so many contextual factors to consider that it is very difficult to say if this also goes for environmentally friendly (types of) behaviour. It is also likely to depend on the mindset of the individual, and so it all becomes a very unpredictable jumble of factors about which we really cannot say much other than it is worth more research, particularly the effects on specific pro-environmental acts in specific situations among a certain target group of people. We can say that, and that there is a chance framing may matter! Now isn’t that enough to consider trying it? For me as a scientist, it definitely is!



Source & Reading suggestion:

Tversky, Amos; Kahneman, Daniel (1981). “The Framing of decisions and the psychology of choice”. Science 211 (4481): 453–458. 

Rothman, A. J., Bartels, R. D., Wlaschin, J. and Salovey, P. (2006), The Strategic Use of Gain- and Loss-Framed Messages to Promote Healthy Behavior: How Theory Can Inform Practice. Journal of Communication, 56: S202–S220.

So, when is it legitimate to nudge?

Critical debates about the nudge approach as a policy tool are often about that nudging “manipulates people’s choices“. That government tricks people to, in their unconsciousness, choose a certain choice. When it comes to this characterization of critique, Hansen and Jespersen (2013) highlights in a well written paper that there are often some unseen areas in the debate. Firstly, they argue that standard policy tools are seldom transparent. Hence, the critique about “manipulation of choice” applies not only for nudging – but for most types of policy instruments. E.g. who among us knows what taxes are applied to every product in the supermarket? So, perhaps a more accurate debate regarding this critique would be the question if paternalism is justified at all? And that’s another debate… Another valid point is that there are different types of nudges, some that may be more appropriate than others when it comes to policy implementation. Hansen and Jespersen divide nudges in to two types; type 1 and type 2. Both aim at influencing automatic behaviour*, but only type 2 is anchored in reflective behaviour*. Therefore, type 2 can be argued to change – not only people’s behaviour – but people’s choices, thus alleviate the manipulation of choice. The authors further divide these types in to two groups – transparent and non-transparent nudges. A transparent nudge is when the citizen being nudged, she or he reasonable understands the intention behind it. A Non-transparent nudge is working in a way that the citizen in situation cannot reconstruct the means by which the behavioural change is pursued. I have tried to clarify these types in the following table.

Transparent Non-transparent
Type 1 Reflective system not engaged in the behaviour change per se, but the nudge is transparent in the way that it allows the influenced person to recognize the means. Examples: Using color red to draw attention, changing printer defaults from one-sided to double-sided printing Trigger change in automatic behaviour, but doesn’t give away the intention behind the nudge.Examples: reducing plate size, changing order of food in restaurants.
Type 2 Engages the reflective system and prompts decision-making in ways that are transparent for the person. Examples: Fuel economy information label, prompted choice for organ-donation. Reflective system engaged, doesn’t happen in a way that by itself gives people epistemic access to the intentions and means. Example: posting faces to increase compliance rates with norms such as cleaning up after oneself or paying for coffee

Still, this is a general categorization and the transparency can have different scales. For a more detailed description – I recommend you to read the paper. Thus, one comment that I would like to add to this paper is that people have different reactions to the nudge depending on their own internal context. A nudge can be subjective – transparent for one person while non-transparent for another hence may be hard to charegorize. But in general, I think this is a quite nice way of analysing central component for a more nuanced ethical framework for policy recommendation. Nevertheless, behavioural market failures notion that people are in fact sometimes bad choosers – making their (and other) lives go worse. Sunstein (2014) argues that it is legitimate and good reasons to use choice architecture to counteract behavioural market failures (i.e. justify paternalism) when behavioural market failures occur and are significant. Sunstein ventures a general principle; the first (and only) law of behaviourally informed regulation: In the face of behavioural market failures, nudges are usually the best response, at least when there is no harm to others. Expectations to this law is that a careful analysis of the social welfare consequences from the choice response. For example, laws that require people to buckle their seatbelts, or prohibit them from texting while driving are based on well-justified cost-benefit grounds and count as acceptable forms of paternalism. Hence, if justified by this law of behaviourally informed regulation, e.g. some types 1 and non-transparent nudges can be legitimate to use in policy. Conclusions we can draw from this discussion are that by maintaining transparency in the goals and methods of nudges, policy-makers can avoid the moral pitfall of paternalism. However, this does not preclude the mandate of using e.g. type 1 non-transparent nudges, but that it is important to careful evaluate and proper acknowledge the cost and benefits of the potential response from the nudge. * The dual process theory underpins the nudge approach and encompasses the concept of ‘system 1 and system 2 thinking’ (Kahneman, 2011). It emphasizes that the human brain functions in two ways that invites for a distinction between two kinds of thinking. ‘System 1’ is fast, intuitive and automatic, and ‘system 2’ is slow, rational and reflective. The two cognitive modes of thinking can be active in combination or in isolation. Thaler and Sunstein (2008) names them ‘automatic’ and ‘reflective’ system. References: Hansen, P. G., & Jespersen, A. M. (2013). Nudge and the Manipulation of Choice: A Framework for the Responsible Use of the Nudge Approach to Behaviour Change in Public Policy. Eur. J. Risk Reg., 3. Kahneman, D. (2011). Thinking, Fast and Slow. New York Sunstein, C. R. (2014). Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. Yale University Press. Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health,Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, Boston

Nudge – the word versus the concept

Both those pro and against nudging as a tool for behaviour change often have a wrong idea about what nudging really entails. This is firstly because the concept is not easily definable. We’ve tried a bit in previous posts (see for instance this one or that one) to explain the concept but it remains a tricky concept. It is much easier to say what is not a nudge, than to define what is. Taxes, coercion and other means of force – those that take away freedom of choice – are not. Anything else might be a nudge, but not necessarily so. Hence, a lot of conceptual confusion.


However, there may be another reason why not everyone can agree on what is – and what isn’t – a nudge. After all, there is the word nudge itself, and then there is the conceptual meaning that we – in accordance to the initial ideas of Thaler and Sunstein – assume that the word nudge means. However, the official dictionary meaning of nudge is(as far as Webster Merriam is concerned, that is):

1) to touch or push (someone or something) gently

2) to push (someone) gently with your elbow in order to get that person’s attention

3) to encourage (someone) to do something

Possibly, the word has old scandinavian origins, for those interested in etymology.

Nudge: “to push slightly with the elbow,” 1670s, perhaps from Scandinavian (compare Norwegian nugge, nyggje “to jostle, rub;” Icelandic nugga “to rub, massage”). Related: Nudged; nudging. (

Who are we to take an age-old word from the dictionary and claim it to be only that which we say it is. We can’t, really! And so there really is no way for us to say that something is or isn’t a nudge in the more general sense of the word. Take for instance the Dutch website A cool website and initiative (sadly only in Dutch right now) which is about sustainable development projects. Freely translated from their ‘about’ section, they: “By facilitating bottom-up initiatives, offer negotiation perspectives that are easily accessible for all. Activities are based on ecological, economical and social impacts, both large scale and small scale.”. It is a social enterprise but it has not anything to do per se with the nudges we are talking about here. Confusing, yet who are we to criticize? They have just as much right to use the name as we do. So if some critic states that something is a nudge, and that he/she despises it for cooercing him/her into a certain direction, the only thing we really can say is “No, that is not a Thaler-Sunstein-nudge!”. It might be a normal nudge, if the person really is experiencing a government official shoving him/her in the back.


But then, with all this conceptual confusion, isn’t it better to take on a different name? Maybe. Maybe not. The weakness of the word – that it is used for other things as well because it is an already existing word – is also its strength. The word symbolizes what nudges are about. We of the behavioural-economy-nudge do not literally want to push – gently – consumers towards the right electricity choice, healthy and eco-friendly products or what not. I for one do not plan to improve the world by shoving people around. The strength of the word nudging lies in its symbolic meaning of giving people a little … well… nudge … in the right direction. It is a figurative way of saying we encourage people to do this and that, without standing in their way to do things differently.


I for one opt for maintaining the terminology as it is now, although a lot can be done about making clear (both to ourselves as towards others) what our Thaler-Sunstein-Nudge really is. But I am just one of many. Anyone who has the most brilliant term, slogan, or whatnot for what we really want with our nudge, make yourself known. There is ample space below this article for your very welcome feedback!