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. (http://www.etymonline.com)

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 http://www.nudge.nl. 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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The Economic (Super)man vs. HomER economicus

With this blog post, I intend to give a (very) brief taste for newbies to the field of behavioural economics. And by that – lets start by talking about some standard economic theory and a rarity of man called Homo Economicus. Homo economicus is a very rational man who carefully weighs cost and benefits and is well-informed by his existing preferences – that is, he computes the values of all the options he faces, and then follows the best possible path of choice. We can also call him superman – hrmhrm, minus the fact that he only maximizes utility in his choices with regard to his own self-interest. This self-interested Superman (nope, he doesn’t sound very charming at all) is what standard economic theory assumes we are as humans. Subsequently, it is also what standard policy tools (e.g. taxes, subsidies, bans & regulations) that target human behaviour are based on.

However, we all now that we as humans are not always rational in our choices. A substantial body of research proves that we are very much influenced by limited cognitive resources, incomplete information and heuristics that lead to systematic deviations from our “rational” choice. Heuristics are mental shortcuts that humans rely on which though to simplify judgemental operations. These heuristics are in general quite useful (it helps you to not being forced actively reflect on every little single bit action you do), but also quite often they lead to severe cognitive biases. Biases that reasons in a way, which is not in accordance with norms of logic and probability. Let’s give you one of the behaviour economics guru Daniel Kahnemans’s favourite examples of how a cognitive bias can occur (although I Swedishonized the version a bit):

An individual in Sweden has been described by a neighbour as follows: Veronika is a very shy and withdrawn person but always helpful to people. She has a passion for reading books and is a very tidy soul with a detail for order and structure. Is Veronika more likely to be a librarian or a doctor?

Now, most people’s first intuitive thought or image that pops up into their mind is that Veronika is a librarian. Surely, this is because Veronika resembles a librarian more than a doctor. But, what “rational” people first should think of is that there are almost ten times more doctors than librarians in Sweden – hence Veronika is more likely to be a doctor. This example is just one out of MANY that proves that we deviates from Mr. Rational Superman.

In fact, we are far more complex than just being rational and therefore behavioural economists rather call us humans HomER economicus. For example, we tend to postpone things that we rather would like to be done with, have unhealthy living habits where we smoke, eat too much and exercise to little and – we consume beyond the planet’s capacity to recover. Therefore, in the area of public policy-making and tools that are based on biased assumptions – the intended effect may lead to failures. Behaviour economics, and in particular nudging, which recently has become a field within applied behavioural economics, is all about understanding these failures in order to change human behaviour.

Applied behavioural economics acknowledge the importance of having an interdisciplinary evidence-based approach using economic with insights from psychology. It emphasizes the role of analyze and test (often via experiments) in order to reveal if the policy intervention actually reached an intended effect on human behaviour. In conclusion, the purpose with this blog – as Britt mentioned in her previous post is NOT to say that “nudging” is the solution of all problems – but to spur an open debate about use of it as a tool with the aim of increasing “good” behaviour in Sweden. Nevertheless, not all nudges are good nudges – nudging is a powerful tool and can be harmful if being used in the wrong hands. But a debate about the ethics of nudging requires much more space than what I will dedicate this post – we’ll save that discussion for an upcoming one!

For those of you how had no clue what behavioural economics is about – hopefully this post gave you a teaser about it and why we should look at policy through a evidence-based behavioural lens.

Over and out!

On the behalf of the Swedish nudging team,


Ps.. Oh, and to be clear – I only shared a glance from my own head in this post. For a more comprehensive understanding I suggest you to dig deeper in to the literature. We will soon provide a reading – and watching list for those who are interested in knowing more!

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: http://www.citylab.com/politics/2013/02/pocket-history-bottle-recycling/4831/ 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