The Power Of A Nudge

You can’t force your members or colleagues to change, but maybe by giving them a little nudge, they’ll be more open to changing their behavior.

What makes things work? More specifically, what is the final push, shove, jerk, bump, prod, or jolt that must occur to see a project completed—or to convince your team or organization’s members that you would like them to change their behavior so that it lines up with your goals?

My professional writer friend knows the perils of pausing when writing a book. He halted for months, but after a conversation with another writer embarrassed him, he finished it. His conversation, which propelled him past the finish line, is emblematic of my new favorite word: nudge.

The nudge idea fascinates me because of the complexity of decision making. Behavioral changes can be seemingly difficult and, in business, expensive. It’s no wonder that the nudge concept is popular with behavioral economists.

Richard Thaler, a University of Chicago professor and 2017 Nobel Prize in Economics winner, launched the idea with Harvard Law Professor Cass R. Sunstein. In their book Nudge, they discuss how public and private organizations can help people make better choices in their daily lives.

I like the book’s notion that a nudge rests on easy choice, rejection (you might not agree with it), and a free market approach. Thaler says that a nudge “is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting the fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.”

Need a few examples? Thaler points to efforts at improving employee participation in employer-sponsored retirement plans. The nudge? Auto-enrollment. Simple, elegant, low cost, and so obvious (in hindsight). Recent studies show auto-enrollment participation rates at 87 percent, compared with 63 percent without auto-enrollment.

Another example is Texas and roadside litter. The nudge was a slogan, “Don’t mess with Texas.” In its first year of adoption, littering fell 29 percent. Here is Thaler’s observation: “In its first six years, there was a 72 percent reduction in visible roadside litter. All this happened not through mandates, threats or coercion but through a creative nudge.”

But what does all this mean, and how does it translate as an advantage to association executives?

First, you need a nudge. Everyone, I repeat, everyone falls prey to the predictable. For the sake of becoming more productive and creative (and giving you the answer when your board asks, “What’s next?”), it’s important to remember that some problems are solvable by a simple nudge and not a complex engineering of a solution. Don’t think complex; think simple.

Second, the beautiful part of a nudge is that even if it doesn’t work, you will not have spent half of your budget on it. The best nudges are usually low-cost, and the results are trackable. If it works, it also allows you to show off to your board, while demonstrating your fiscal restraint. Can there be anything better?

Have you had success using nudges with your staff or members? Please share in the comments.

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Ryan Kiscaden

By Ryan Kiscaden

Ryan Kiscaden is executive director of the Thermostat Recycling Corporation in Fort Washington, Pennsylvania, and author of forthcoming book Stay the Course: Lessons Through Marketing, Business, and Environmental Briefs. MORE

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