Nudges can backfire…

In  Sweden we have an alcohol monopoly, where only the store called Systembolaget is allowed to sell alcohol. Stated at Systembolagets webpage, it exists for one reason: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” During Christmas this year, they have a campaign with a message on their plastic bags stated as follows:


“ The fact that we are the only one that sells beer, wine and liquor is a bit uncomfortable for you. But this is what you contribute to this year:

About 2000 saved lives

About 20 000 less violence crime

About 11 million less sick days”

Now… From a behavioural perspective, how does this make you feel? Perhaps I’m the only one, but this text actually puts me in a mood that make me feel – Yay, I just bought something for a good cause! Great, this justifies my alcohol shopping… Well, let’s be frank, I don’t think that’s the intention with the message.

Research led by Prof. Robert Cildini at Arizona State University proves that nudges can indeed backfire. In a national park, the research team tried to stop people from stealing petrified wood by posting: “Many past visitors have removed wood from the park, changing the state of the Petrified Forest”. But, with this warning, theft rates still stood high. So they changed the sign: “Your heritage is being vandalized every day by theft losses of petrified wood of 14 tons a year, mostly a small piece at a time”. Surprisingly, this warning influenced theft – but not in the intended direction: stealing jumped from 5 percent to almost 8 percent. The researchers concluded that the message people received was not “don’t steel the petrified wood” but rather “Stealing petrified wood is a common and socially acceptable behaviour.” This research proves that the intended effect the nudges can truly backfire. It emphasizes (as always) the importance of experimental testing thus, behavioural response to nudges can be unpredictable and very context depended.

I assume, that the intentions behind Systembolagets campaign are in line with the reason of why they exist, again: “To minimize alcohol-related problems by selling alcohol in a responsible way, without profit motive.” Maybe the campaign does work, we don’t know, as it’s most likely not tested.

But… According to me, from a behavioural perspective this is not a responsible campaign as it gives you a positive feedback holding a bag of alcohol. Hypothetically, this type of nudge may backfire making consumption of alcohol unintentionally justified as a good cause and consequently increase those numbers stated on the bag for next year…

merry christmas from systembolaget

“Systembolaget wishes you a very merry christmas”……


Cialdini, R. B., Demaine, L. J., Sagarin, B. J., Barrett, D. W., Rhoads, K., & Winter, P. L. (2006). Managing social norms for persuasive impact. Social influence, 1(1), 3-15.


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