Recycling, (yet again), Belgian style.

One thing I noticed about my own neighbourhood’s recycling efforts is how difficult it can be for people (including myself) to perform the right behaviour. It is all about facilitation, and having to walk around a large shed building, bring an extra key to open a door that doesn’t want to budge, in order to find out that all the containers are full, and ending up having to carry your stuff back home, so as to try again next day… That is not facilitation.

I do not intend to rave and rant about how not to do it, though. Here is a simple example from a public place (Brussels Airport) that shows how simple it can be made.


Late January I find myself strolling through Brussels International Airport. I hate flying so I am always considerably cranky on airports. However, the first thing I notice while trying to locate the quite well-hidden train station, is this rather poetical message on the wall. It isn’t exactly Shakespeare-worthy, but it is catchy and if made me smile.

That’s an important feature, it made me smile. If something induces positive emotions in people, there is a large chance they attribute the emotion to their behaviour. From this, they infer that (if they do recycle) they do so in order to make themselves happy, and from there comes the logical conclusion that they must be environmentally aware.

Mind, I ‘say’ logical conclusion, but that does not mean that many people will actively think about this in the way described above. Emotions are often subconscious influencers to our behaviour, rather than that we really notice them for what they are.

Anyway, my gaze drops and I see a threesome bins, cheerfully inviting me to play the game I used to play when I was a kid: blocks in the square hole, circles in the round one. This time it is bottles, paper, and unshapely objects that need to be put in the right hole.


If you’re illiterate, you have no reason to fail: there are icons on the rim explaining exactly what to throw in where. If you’re blind, even then can you sense your way out of the dilemma (although considerably less easy, I grant). Even people who cannot decipher the text, nor images, can still do it, since it is quite obvious that paper goes in the left, bottles in the middle, and the rest can go in the right.

Nothing new on the horizon. 

I have seen similar bins all over Europe, they are basically popping up everywhere. It is encouraging to see, as these bins make it so much easier to separate trash. Me as a trash-producing consumer, I have to spend not even one extra second on doing what is environmentally correct! It may even be more appealing, since trash is separated into three bins, reducing the chance that the bin is overflowing with waste and spilling it on the floor.

Funnily enough, not all initiatives are as smart as this one. There was a recent photo upload on Twitter (link here) that shows the waste-categories on the bottom of the bin. This may not have been the best location for this nudge…

New year resolutions, and why we always fail?

For starters, I wish you all a happy 2015. 

By Bryant Arnold Published: 30-Dec-12 Courtesy from

By Bryant Arnold. Published: 30-Dec-12. Courtesy from


Although it is a mandatory thing to say, it always makes me doubt about my own intentions, a bit- First of all, how can I possibly hope to cover your entire next year with one saying? It is a bit over-ambitious, isn’t it? And still I wish all of you a happy entire 2015, sleeping nights and Monday mornings included. Could it be that I merely wish this because social convention dictates I do so? Perhaps I don’t even wish for it, I just repeat the words I learnt as a child. Kind of like American’s saying good-day to each other by saying ‘How are you doing?‘. They don’t expect any of their receivers to roll out an epistle about their current situation and constitution. They expect ‘fine/great, and you?‘. And so, when I wished you a happy 2015, your mind probably automatically thought ‘thank you, and the same to you too!‘ (unless you really hate me, but I hope you don’t).



This is a click-whirr effect (an apt term coined by social psychology guru Robert Cialdini). Click-whirr is when a stimulus or ‘trigger’ from the outside world stimulates behaviour from ourselves. The “Happy 2015”-click activates the “you too” whirr. Other example: a baby smiling activates a smile on your own face (unless you are truly an abdominal evil character, but apart from psychopaths nearly everyone else does smile back when babies give us their brightest leers).


Click-whirr underlies many nudging things in life. In fact, it underlines so much behaviour that it is hardly possible to spend a day without it. In any case, such a day would be very tiring, as you would have to think about all the automatic behaviours you would normally perform. Instead of waiting for a red light and walking or driving at a green one, you’d have to take some time deliberating about the meaning of the colours, and the necessity for you to follow them. What are the consequences if you do, what if you do not? Upon entering the office, instead of taking your morning coffee, you have to deliberate about the health aspects, environmental aspects and possibly economical considerations of this. No click-whirr (green equals go, entering office means coffee machine visit) would make life very very difficult and cumbersome.


This reliance on it, however, also makes us particularly vulnerable when we want to change behaviour. Suppose you did indeed think long and hard, over Christmas break, about the detrimental effects of coffee (believe me, there are none!). As a new years resolution you decided to cut down on coffee (insanity, if you ask me, but I hear a lot of folk around me attempting it). Your first two days at home you do fine, but then you go back to work and as soon as you pass the machine, before you know it you’re tapping a cup of blissful black splendour called coffee. Dang! Pardon my French, but you just succumbed to the click-whirr effect of the situation. The environment has always nudged you, guided you, supported you, towards taking the cup, so much that the behavioural path of seeing the machine, and drinking a cup, is ingrained in your subconscious memory.


The good news, you cannot help yourself, and moreover, you are in good company, nearly no one can! The bad news: Click-whirr reactions are not only vital for our existence, by nature they are very hard to change or break. The only obvious way of breaking them is removing the click. If you are dead set on stopping your coffee consumption, consider giving up your job…


Ways out of this conundrum?

Well, there is always the changing of your own mind, as Ida beautifully described in the previous post. If our thoughts and behaviour are inconsistent (not compatible with one another), we either change our behaviour or our thoughts. Well, after having tapped your morning coffee, there is (hopefully) no way in hell you are going to throw it away. That leaves you with changing your minds. After all, one cup might not be too bad, right? Just ‘cutting back’ would be fine, perhaps as much as one less cup a day?

The effectiveness of such changing of your mind can be debated. Sometimes it might work, sometimes it might not. In the case of coffee, by all means, drink it by the barrels and forget all your resolutions at once. But if you want to be more physically active, stop smoking (or worse things) or pay more attention to your cats and dogs, then perhaps only changing your mind is not the way to go.


How then? 

As we cannot easily change the whirr, we must change the click. Short of throwing the coffee machine out (or pouring printing ink in the water reservoir) there are better ways of doing so. Each situation of course requires individual attention, but in essence it is the same thing: changing the click. And here lies the problem.


The problem and the solution

The problem with New Year Resolutions is that they are nearly always focused on the whirr. Logical, since the whirr is our own behaviour, and ought not our own behaviour be under our influence? Well… as said above, no, not really. What we must change instead, is the click. Take a different approach to your office room, that does not pass along the coffee machine. Sell the car. Throw away all your scigarettes ash trays, lighters and anything else that reminds you of smoking. Do not linger in smoke areas and avoid going to friends or occasions where others do and will offer. Change the environment, do not try to change your behaviour.

Instead of having the resolution: quit smoking, your resolution should be: get rid of all smoking reminders. Kill the click, and you kill the whirr.


Now, if you are a pleased reader after this, please honour me with your very own resolution(s) and how you can rephrase them. If only I knew a right click-word to whirr you all into giving responses. You’ll have to do with my sincere request instead, and a pretty smiley 🙂



Source: Cialdini, R. (1984). Influence: The Psychology of Persuasion, New York: Quill


Another blog post (unfortunately only in German) covering similar stuff can be found here

Paternalism, another debate

An odd title, I know, but it refers back to an article a colleague blogger of mine wrote a little while ago, titled: So when is it legitimate to nudge? In this post, Linda writes a bit about paternalism, and concludes that: ” …perhaps a more accurate debate regarding this critique [nudging being paternalistic] would be the question if paternalism is justified at all? And that’s another debate…”

It is time to have this other debate, I think. The paternalistic aspect of nudging is a thorn in the eye of many critics, of which Robert Sugden is one of the most eloquent and clear. Not only does Sugden write clearly, his critique on nudging makes even the most devout nudger doubt his or her own convictions. And truth be told, the paternalistic tendencies of nudging are indeed a disturbing factor in the whole concept of nudging. It is because of this that I think it is time to have this debate about paternalism, and I will use one of Sugden’s work as inspiration (see the reference list). Mind you, if you do not like to hear critique on nudging, because you are absolutely convinced about its brilliancy, then don’t read this blogpost. It will be a waste of time at best, and depress you at worst. If you are, however, a critical thinker, I invite you to read on, and reflect.


Once upon a time…

Before hearing Sugden speak, let’s reiterate what Thaler and Sunstein wrote in their Nudge book (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). They define a choice architect as “[having] the responsibility for organizing the context in which people make decisions.” Everything in the context matters, and a decision or behaviour always has a context. In a very recent paper on ethics, Sunstein elaborates on this even further, emphasizing that “When people make decisions, they do so against a background consisting of choice architecture” (Sunstein, 2014). So far there is little to argue against. What is basically said is that no one operates in a void, and I think any sceptic would have a hard time arguing against this. However, the problem of many a critic, and Sugden is among them, is in the conscious role of a choice architect. Again speaking in the words of Thaler and Sunstein’s book: “[they] argue for self-conscious efforts, by institutions in the private sector and also by government, to steer people’s choice in directions that will improve their lives … that will make people better off judged by themselves” (italics in original, p. 5).

Earlier we read that people are pretty incapable of doing so, unless we have full cognitive abilities, complete self control, complete information, attention and time. So, assuming we had all that, then the decision we would make in such a situation, is the one choice architects ought to endorse. So far so good…

Or is it?


Nudges make people better off, as judged by themselves?

How are choice architects to know what people would do if only they had the time to think? If we maintain this ideal, then a lot of nudges that induce pro-social behaviour ought to not be developed in the first place. After all, for any individual it can be rather detrimental to spend time recycling their newspaper, automatically donating money each year to Greenpeace and spend well-earned payments to eco-friendly products. Instead, these people could spend their time working (earning money), or saving money for their own retirement. In fact, many of the default nudges Thaler and Sunstein describe are favouring retirement funds over other expenditures. But isn’t a nudge that makes us more ‘pro-environmental’ or ‘pro-social’ also desirable? Fully rational people think about the future, right? I am not trying to be judgemental here, the point is: it is rather (extremely) difficult to assess what people would judge by themselves.

In fact, even if people are fully capable (time wise and what not), they would probably not be able to make a choice, because at which time frame are we considering? Sure, saving for retirement is nice for me, later on, but saving the planet is nice for my kids, later on, and having a big-ass tv is nice for me and my family, over Christmas! And even if a single individual could make this decision, that is not to say others would come to the same conclusion. Personalities differ, people differ. Some persons might ascribe great value to family occasions, and so the tv is much more important to them than their retirement, or their kids (which they might not even have).


But, Freedom of Choice…

Yes, freedom of choice. Nudges are, in principle, never obstructing people’s freedom of choice. Even if our automatic debit to a good cause is making sure we pay our donation every year, this is on no occasion obstructing our power to choose to do otherwise. Sugden’s main critique is hinged on this, that nudges are assumed to be better than non-libertarian paternalism (strict laws, rules and such) because the freedom of choice demand restricts excesses of paternalism. Sure, good idea, but, in words of Sugden himself: “if that condition [freedom of choice] is weakened to the principle that the costs of paternalism bust be small relative to the benefits, definitions of ‘cost’ and ‘benefit’ are essential.”. (Sugden, 2009, p.370). Essential, yes, and lacking…

We cannot talk about normal costs and benefits, of course, because those terms are linked to having a preference structure (which people don’t, hence the need to nudge them). Rather than this, choice architects will need to develop other ways to ‘divine’ the choices people would otherwise make, if only they had time, cognitive capacity, self-control and perfect information. Still, so Sugden argues and I cannot but agree, these concepts all do not have any strict definitions. In other words, they are quite normative. In even other words, how these are assessed (and consequently which behaviour is seen as the desired outcome) depends very much on the choice architect’s definitions of self-control, capacity, and information needs. So the inevitable conclusion is that the nudge is not the behaviour best, as judged by the person being nudged. It is the behaviour as judged best by the choice architect. 

So strangely, while the idea of nudging is borne out of an acknowledgement that we are not homo economicus, it seems that we do still need this homo economicus to figure out the desirable behaviour. Sugden, as well as Thaler and Sunstein, I dare-say, all agree on the notion that this is just not very realistic. Nudges, instead, ought to be used for behaviour for which people really do lack feedback or expertise needed to make sound choices. I agree, in such cases it is definitely nice to have nudges to guide my behaviour. But as for choice architects, these guidelines are not very concrete, are they. What kind of behaviour is to be nudged?


There are obvious behaviours that are wrong, though!

Agreed, certain behaviours have the numbers against them. Smoking, over-eating, drinking (alcohol, mind you) and drunk driving are all examples of behaviour that is pretty risky, if not for an individual, then at least for society. But is this behaviour that is bad, as judged by themselves? Suppose a person makes a very rational cost-benefit analysis, and decides that whatever the costs, smoking still is the thing for him/her?

Statistics may help. We know that for most people, it is good to eat a bit less, and to refrain from smoking. Moreover, it is better for society at large, as the medical costs will be reduced and so more money can be spent on other illnesses or research. Still, this is nudging as judged by use to society, not for the individual. Then there are nudges for the sake of the environment. I completely and wholeheartedly endorse such nudges, myself, by the way. I must come clean there. But in many cases, these nudges are not better as judged by individuals. They are, however, better for the environment (or at least aspire to be).


So judged by whom?

Let us assume that we are not nudging people in a behaviour better as judged by themselves, but for the sake of society at large, of the environment. Assuming this, another important question arises. Who has the expertise to identify which behaviour is better? Some nudges may be evident (there are hardly any costs to nudging people to recycle more, for instance, by adding trash-shaped lids to waste bins) but other nudges may be less so (who is to say that it is good to invest your money in fixed-interest bonds, as Thaler and Sunstein suggest in their book?).

Sugden rounds up with the statement that the concept of nudging seems to not notice, or acknowledge, the lack of precision in criteria required for assessing if nudges are needed, and in which direction they ought to nudge.


But… but… this blog is pro-nudging!

Yes, and what of it? I do hope the reader is, after reading this blog entry, not depressed or convinced of the corruption and perdition of nudging. I think that all previous posts have made it blatantly clear how useful nudging can be. Even the beginning of this article stated as much, and it still holds true, every context nudges, and so it is unavoidable. What this article points out is that there are some flaws (or not even flaws, maybe just small ‘uncomfortabilities’) in the idea of nudging that require our attention. It does not mean that we should throw away nudging altogether, it merely means we should not idolize it. Critical reflection is the way to go.

That said, I think we all acknowledge and agree that nudges have their time and place, and in other places either anarchy or strict regulation is more appropriate. However, urgent questions remain: what is the place of nudges? And how do we nudge people towards behaviour better for them, and who judges what is better? Who, moreover, judges which alternatives are acceptable, in order to maintain and satisfy the need for freedom of choice?

As a final quote for you to think about on your way to an afternoon coffee: Sunstein and Thaler (2003) stated: “Libertarian paternalists want to promote freedom of choice, but they need not seek to provide bad options,…” Mind you, only reasonable options are allowed.




Reference list: 

Sugden, R. (2009). On Nudging: A review of Nudge: improving Decisions about Health, Weath and Happiness, by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein, International Journal of the Economics of Business, Vol. 16, No. 3, pp. 365-373

Thaler, R. H., & Sunstein, C. R. (2008). Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health,Wealth, and Happiness. Yale University Press, Boston

Sunstein, C.R. (2014). The Ethics of Nudging. Available at SSRN: or

Sunstein, C. R., & Thaler, R. H. (2003). Libertarian paternalism is not an oxymoron. The University of Chicago Law Review, 1159-1202.

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.

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!



Nudging misunderstood

Nudging (or as some seem to have dubbed it ‘Nudge Theory’) is booming and inevitably there are critics. We can hardly deny that there are downsides to some aspects of nudges, and that they are not appropriate in all situations or cases. Acknowledged, for certain. The point in such cases is not to discard nudging, but to find the situations in which it can and in what way it can be helpful.

In other words, we encourage people to adopt a critical stance to the initial phase of using nudges, anywhere, anytime, anyhow. Test and see if it works before diving head-first into the dark. Most critique that points towards this direction is very useful and completely valid but…

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A physical environment change nudge: Uppsala Bottle Bins

People in Sweden are quite responsible in general, with 93% of Swedish respondents in a Eurobarometer poll stating that recycling of waste is pivotal for the environment. Although convinced of this, only 69% of Swedes claim to regularly recycle their trash. Now this is a half-full/half-empty glass issue, and I am not saying that 69% is too little. In fact, I am proud of Swedes that they score so high in this. The European average is only 59%, and only a few countries top Sweden in recycling: Luxembourg (83%), France (82%), Belgium (78%), the UK (74%), Austria (71%) and Ireland (70%). But nevertheless, 69% means that at least 31% of us can do more! That is a happy message, if you ask me, there is room for improvement. All we really need to do, is improve!

Coming back to the topic of this post: Uppsala’s Bottle Bins. Uppsala saw a brilliant opportunity in adding some bottle-collecting cylinders to their normal trash bins; it provides poor people with an excellent way to collect waste and thus both earn money and help society keep clean at the same time. As you can see on the photo below, pedestrians can dispose their pant bottles (and pant is high in Sweden, about 1 kr per small container, or 10 Euro-cents). People who can use some extra money can simply take out the bottles if they see them in there, without the need to dig through a deep trash bin (and sometimes leaving a messy sight).

Source: Original caption: “Empty beverage container collector, Uppsala 2012 (Finn Arne Jørgensen)”

This is a nudge that changes something in the physical environment of the person who engages in behaviour. In fact, it does so on two occasions. Firstly it suggests people that it is better to drop their flasks and bottles in the recycle cilinder, rather than tossing them in the common trash bin. Secondly, it allows people who are looking for these bottles as a way of income to collect them without having to go head-first into dirty trash bins!

If you want to check out these bins, by the way, they are still around at the Uppsala train station. If you’re around, go ahead and donate a bottle or two.

The Swedish Nudging Network – Warm Words of Welcome

Welcome to the new blog site of the Swedish Nudging Network. We are happy to see you found us. Are you familiar with nudging? Nudging, is it the solution to all our problems or the greatest joke in behavioural science since Milgram* and colleagues got people to stare into the distance, for no apparent reason other than that others seemed to be doing it? It is easy to be excited about it, but nudging people is not a panacea for all the world’s problems. It will not solve wars nor will it feed the poor, but what it can do, is help people in good behaviour in their everyday lives. That is great, right? But what is it, then, to nudge? The term nudging as it was invented by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein is all about making small changes in a person’s choice environment (we often like to call it choice architecture). This choice environment can be physical (the place you are standing at, the items around you, the view in a distance) as mental (the memories of good old days, your identity, or knowledge about something) and social (who is watching, what would they think, do you care?). All these things affect behaviour, and they do so, always. There is no choice nor behaviour that does not have an choice architecture (just as there is no building that has no ‘real’ architecture). Here is where nudging comes into play. Nudging is trying to facilitate better behaviour (for health, society and the environment) by changing the choice architecture. Pivotal (and we cannot emphasize this enough) is that the options remain open. If a so-called choice architect decides to remove A and B from an ABC choice, then he is not nudging, he is coercing. Nudging would be to make it more likely for any individual to choose one over the others, but always without infringing on a person’s own freedom to choose.

Here ends the first lesson on nudges. We hope that the reader will scroll down and enjoy the many posts that we will put on here. They are all related to nudging, and will hopefully enlighten and inspire both the expert and the lay-person. Enjoy and never hesitate to give your feedback! Kind regards on behalf of the nudging team of Sweden   Britt

* Milgram and colleagues, they did an experiment to see what people would do if they see others behave in certain ways. They posted an individual on a streetcorner and had him stare at the sky. Little happened. They then had five people stare at the sky, same point, same time of the day. What happened? All of the sudden, a lot of pedestrians started staring at the sky as well! Social proof. Useful for something? Feel free to let us know how you would use this. Help us inspire