Supervised by: Princess Agina MBA (Oxon). Princess studied Business (including Finance, M&A, and Economics) at the University of Oxford. She is a Fulbright Scholar, Laidlaw Scholar, and Oxford Saïd Scholar. She currently runs an AI startup in London.
This research paper investigates the nuanced ways in which governments and companies employ behavioural tools to influence human behaviour, particularly through the lens of nudge theory. By delving into the interdisciplinary field of behavioural economics, our study explores the mechanisms of nudging, choice architecture, and message framing employed by these entities. Our study also focuses on the ethical dimensions of nudge theory, scrutinising the effect on individual autonomy and its potentially dangerous consequences. This paper examines real-world examples, discusses the practical limitations of implementing these behavioural tools, both from governmental and corporate perspectives, and seeks to unravel the ethical implications of influencing behaviour. In doing so, our study raises critical questions about the balance between informed choice and external intervention in shaping societal behaviour.
Nudging, as defined by the United Nations (UN) Innovation Network, involves behaviourally-informed interventions that predictably alter behaviour by changing the presentation of choices without limiting options, thus preserving freedom of choice. A nudge subtly influences behaviour through small environmental or informational changes. Nudging is a relatively new idea, but it is also one that has remained at the centre of behavioural discussion since its conception. Its irrefutable prominence stems from its prevalence; companies and governments worldwide use its various behavioural tools to influence human behaviour every day. Nudge theory, an integral component of behavioural economics, represents a synthesis of economic principles and cognitive science. To better comprehend the interdisciplinary framework of nudging, it is essential to grasp fundamental concepts in behavioural economics – the overarching field to which this theory belongs. Behavioural economics, an amalgamation of economics and cognitive science, utilises psychological tools such as nudges, choice architecture, and message framing to impact human behaviour by tapping into cognitive biases. Essentially, this field explores deviations from rational decision-making processes and utilises insights from cognitive science to craft interventions guiding choices towards specific outcomes.
Automatic Processing System
Behavioural tools predominantly utilise the automatic processing system within human cognition. Human responses to information can be classified into two modes: automatic and reflective. The reflective system is activated during protracted decision-making processes, such as choosing a residence for a mortgage or selecting health insurance. It entails the deliberate contemplation of explicit intentions and objectives. In essence, reflective cognition involves the systematic evaluation of multiple options with rationality, a meticulous weighing of each alternative, and the formulation of an informed decision based on the presented information.
Conversely, the automatic system tends to assume dominance in situations marked by excessive difficulty or cognitive overload, as well as in the presence of external pressures such as time constraints. It frequently operates without conscious awareness, particularly during routine or well-practised tasks like reading or recognising familiar faces. The automatic system relies on expeditious judgements executed through simple and efficient rules, facilitating prompt decision-making. However, despite its general efficacy, this process is susceptible to the influence of judgmental heuristics, potentially resulting in deviations from logical and rational decision-making.
Acknowledging the inherent limitations of the automatic system, particularly when subjected to heuristic biases, underscores the necessity for external intervention. This is where behavioural tools play a pivotal role, aiding individuals in navigating and optimising decision-making processes influenced by both automatic and reflective cognitive systems.
Nudge theory, popularised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, suggests that individuals can be subtly guided, or ‘nudged’, towards making better choices without restricting their freedom.
Nudge defines any part of choice architecture that can predictably change an individual’s behaviour without taking away other options or notably altering economic incentives.
Thaler and Sunstein’s book acknowledges the different biases that come into play when individuals face decision-making and how these biases can be used advantageously to create nudges.
For example, you are more likely to pay for insurance against a natural disaster if you have experienced an earthquake yourself and know firsthand how dangerous it can be. These influences, or biases, guide an individual into making a certain choice. Nudge theory itself is applied in countless areas, including public policy, environmental conservation, marketing and healthcare. The techniques used in nudge employ insights from behavioural psychology and follow the main aim of aligning with an individual’s long-term goals and wellbeing.
Behavioural tools can be utilised in a way that holds significant implications for governance and commerce. For example, message framing makes use of persuasive communication by framing information to highlight the outcomes of taking or not taking a specific action. This can highlight either a gain or a loss, highlighting it as, respectively, a positive frame or a negative frame, which has been demonstrated to be very effective as a behavioural tool. Strategically presenting information, while keeping an individual’s perceptions and attitude in mind, is the basis of message framing. For example, when aiming to promote healthy behaviour, employing a positive frame can be achieved by emphasising the benefits of adopting this behaviour. Conversely, if the intention is to discourage people from adopting a certain behaviour, employing a negative frame involves highlighting the potential drawbacks of that behaviour. The selection of the frame significantly influences how individuals interpret and respond to information. Presenting information in a selective manner is another possible way of nudging.
In behavioural economics, choice architecture involves shaping an individual’s decision-making by strategically presenting their choices. An illustrative practice observed among many governments, businesses, and organisations is the promotion of healthy eating. Making a salad bar easily accessible, positioning healthier snack options at eye level, or locating less nutritious alternatives in more discreet areas all exemplify the effective use of choice architecture. While this approach may not guarantee that individuals will opt for a salad or healthier choice, it does prompt them to reconsider, yielding potentially beneficial outcomes depending on the individual. Presenting more advantageous choices first can act as a subtle ‘nudge’, influencing individuals to make healthier decisions.
Choice architecture is a broader framework, and nudging is a specific application or technique within the choice architecture.
Companies using these tools:
This section will explore how companies integrate behavioural insights into their marketing campaigns – namely, message framing and choice architecture – and how doing so helps them drive their sales, retain customers, and improve brand reputation. The practical challenges companies face when using these behavioural tools will also be explored.
Message framing is widely present in industries, and firms make use of behavioural analysis to tailor advertisements that leverage human bias. Using prospect theory, customers are generally seen to be loss-averse (Kahneman, 2011). Companies have leveraged this in their marketing by highlighting the loss customers might experience if they don’t buy their products. Thus, loss-averse customers will react to their possible loss by buying the product to prevent risks. This is especially relevant to companies that promote their corporate social responsibility (CSR), as their marketing language makes customers feel unethical for not buying and contributing socially – customers feel an emotional loss. This emotive language, pathos, can be seen in companies promoting eco-friendly products, as customers that don’t purchase the product feel as if they’re not contributing to a good cause, and they experience guilt (Stadlthanner, 2022).
Herd mentality, the innate human desire to copy the decisions of a group of people, is a specific behaviour that companies often capitalise on when using message framing. Customers, seeing a popular product, will ‘follow the crowd’ and buy the product, as they believe they are missing out on the benefit that many people must be enjoying. Companies target the herd mentality by advertising a product as scarce and then saying how many customers have bought it. They may also showcase reviews of the product or use language like “don’t miss out”, in order to create urgency in customers and target their FOMO (fear of missing out) to evoke their physical ‘herding’ response that makes them decisive to copy people’s actions and buy the product.
While language is a more explicit use of message framing, message framing can have uses that target the subconscious. Companies make use of psychological pricing, for example, by knocking off £0.01 or £0.05 from a price to make it seem significantly cheaper, and customers, experiencing the ‘left-digit bias’, respond with higher demand. Supplying information outside the product itself, companies may use percentages to emphasise the value of discounts and use positive language like “save” instead of “pay less” (Larson, 2014). These tactics can implicitly make products seem cheaper, driving sales. Notably, however, the extent of how effective these psychological strategies are depends on demographic factors like the age, status, and lifestyle of the customer (Kumar & Pandey, 2017).
Beyond price, companies also leverage the emotional response of customers to certain colours to make them associate a feeling with a product. In fact, colour has been found to be more influential on customers than touch or aroma. Effects tend to vary for different demographics, but, as an example, brown and black are mainly associated with sadness, whilst orange and yellow are associated with happiness. By capitalising on the effects of these colours, companies can associate pleasurable emotions with a product to attract sales (ChangDa & Bhaumik, 2023).
Companies risk overwhelming the customer with too many choices; using choice architecture to simplify complex choices can improve the customer experience. Platforms like Netflix and Amazon provide customers with a ‘filter’ option that filters items based on the characteristics customers want in a product or show. This allows customers a more straightforward process to find the products or shows they want, hence customers have less difficulty in finding products, making them more likely to purchase from these companies.This is a company’s use of a “convenience strategy”, which takes advantage of the human bias of preferring fast and easy choices—customers would prefer the ‘convenient company’, rather than others (Thaler et al., 2012). Additionally, customers tend to highly value how easily they can stop shopping at a business rather than how easy it is to start their shopping. Firms that leverage this can optimise how easily customers can stop their shopping, evidenced by self-checkout automation in supermarkets. This helps firms retain customers and attract frequent demand. This has especially been exemplified by utilitarian customers and retail/grocery stores that customers often visit, as customers value the “in-and-out” ease of their shopping (Moeller et al., 2009).
An extension of this method is “collaborative filtering” techniques. These involve companies collecting the opinions of previous buyers and making their opinions salient to new customers, like reviews seen on Ebay or Trustpilot. This helps consumers simplify complex choices. Additionally, companies influence buyers’ anchoring bias – where new buyers emphasise the first review they see – by highlighting positive product reviews to customers. Firms often use machine learning algorithms to account for buying habits, such as customers’ “dwell time” on a product screen,to help them predict customer preferences and use memory-based filtering that recommends the customer content that similar buyers like. Similarly, content-based filtering may also be used, but to recommend the customer content that is similar to what a customer has previously liked (Mustafal et al., 2017).
Lastly, I will outline the use of feedback systems that decrease the difficulty of customer choice-making and improve customer service. Companies can create intuitive customer service if it is responsive and clear. For example, companies often make use of feedback cues like animations for customers that click on any buttons, providing customers a visual signal that their action had an effect (Thaler et al., 2012). Companies with intuitive systems like these will attract more customer purchases, as their customers are less confused when considering their buying choices.
As these behavioural tools rely on the validity of behavioural studies, they have various practical limitations that affect their effectiveness in increasing the sales, customer retention, and brand reputation of companies. Behavioural economics experiments are often criticised for taking place in closed and controlled laboratories, not accounting for how behaviour is impacted by the external variables of the real world. This means that companies may find that the extent to which customers have a bias is smaller in real-life scenarios, and their efforts to increase sales will be misguided. Additionally, these experiments harbour significant heterogeneity, so companies may find it hard to find a credible theory to use when developing marketing methods. Behavioural experiments have also focused largely on individual behaviour and not societal behaviour (Hallsworth, 2023), meaning companies may also risk a loss if they are unable to predict how customers are likely to truly act. Furthermore, due to the inexact nature of behavioural studies the extent to which recognised biases affect customer buying decisions is uncertain, and it varies widely per demographic of customers. Companies may ultimately struggle to understand what nuances to include in their message framing and choice architecture to fully capitalise on behaviour and incur benefits.
The Ethical Implications of Companies Using These Tools:
There are a number of choice architecture inventions, ranging from defaults to reminders. The most important aspect of these interventions is their perceived level of intrusiveness. The last decade has seen a rapid growth of interest in choice-preserving and low-cost regulatory tools. In light of this, it is important to obtain an understanding of the nature and ethical implications of the use of these tools. Many regulatory tools involve nudges and choice architecture that come with numerous ethical objections, whether they are objections about the lack of human autonomy or an increasing level of intrusiveness. However, it can also be argued that the ethical objections lack much force for two reasons. Firstly, since both nudges and choice architecture are inevitable, it would be careless to wish them away. Secondly, many nudges and forms of choice architecture are defensible and even required when it comes to welfare, fair distribution and more.
Autonomy requires informed choices, and many nudges are designed to ensure that choices remain informed. When helping some people correct a certain bias, nudges and choice architecture might well promote and act in the interest of autonomy. It is key to see that autonomy does not mean making choices everywhere. This can be seen when looking at the close relationship between time management and autonomy. People should be able to devote their attention to questions and choices that deserve attention. If people were made to make choices in all contexts, this would inherently reduce their autonomy. It can therefore be argued that the use of choice architecture can actually increase people’s autonomy by reducing the amount of time it takes for them to make decisions that, in their view, do not require so much of their attention (Sunstein, 2015).
Nonetheless, it can be seen that the best of choice architecture often requires active choice. Although the use of these nudges preserves freedom of choice, default choices can interfere with autonomy, especially if they do not track people’s most likely choices. Economists such as Luc Bovens claim that choice architecture leaves people with ‘fragmented selves’ as they behave one way under nudges that they otherwise would not (Bovens, 2009). The main point of criticism around the ethics of choice architecture is that, if people become used to being nudged by different companies in terms of what products we buy, we may become passive and tolerable of more controlling tactics (Sunstein, 2015). A lack of transparency can also be seen in many marketing campaigns and advertisements. If choice architects conceal, it can be seen as fair to charge them with manipulative and coercive behaviour. For example, a nudge used by companies manipulates our freedom of choice, as opposed to our behaviour, by limiting individual choices. In this way, companies exploit consumers’ lack of knowledge.
Herding behaviour is developed around the theoretical framework of bounded rationality. Behavioural economics states that when an individual has limited time or information to make a particular decision, he tends to copy the behaviour of others. This is commonly used by marketers to increase their sales.
The use of herd mentality in marketing can be seen as unethical by many, due to the possibility of exposing large groups of people to misinformation. Not only does the use of herd behaviour in marketing erode consumer trust, but it also creates asset bubbles. An asset bubble is nothing but the propagation of a false trend by the entire market. The ultimate issue with this is that consumers will not actually check the information being given to them but rather assume the ‘herd’ they follow knows the facts. This gives companies the opportunity to provide a few consumers with limited or misinformed products, knowing that rational individuals will ‘herd’ in the belief that their choice is optimal and efficient, even though it might not always be so. This is an information cascade. Companies can also take advantage of consumers’ uncertainty and fears, as well as behavioural biases. The human desire for conformity and fear of missing out are used incessantly by different companies employing marketing tactics such as scarcity. Some might question whether the exploitation of the human need to conform rather than listen to the opinions of the brand is ethical, especially when the brand is using deceptive advertising.
The framing effect, also referred to as framing bias, is a cognitive bias where individuals make decisions based on how an issue is presented rather than the actual information itself, as the same information, framed differently, can lead to varied decisions. Marketers who grasp and utilise the framing effect can shape marketing messages to sway consumer behaviour, thus enhancing sales.
In general, consumers tend to prefer products that offer certain gains, even when another choice seems more ethical, all due to the way a product is framed. Framing can affect consumers’ opinions on certain products and, consequently, their decisions. Framing presents perceptions of reality and often distorts the truth by presenting information in terms of a gain or a loss, exploiting the consumer’s bias and/or lack of knowledge. When used, one can argue it is the exploitation of the human psychological response to emotion.
The ability of companies to connect with consumers on a more emotional level, appeal to their tendency to ‘follow the crowd’, and alter how they see their choices can consequently cause consumers to behave in a way that they would not otherwise behave. Whilst, at present, companies are not explicitly manipulating consumer behaviour, it is vital that we understand the potential dangers and prevent the excessive use of these behavioural tools to ensure consumers retain their autonomy when making choices in the market.
Governments Using Nudges
When a government employs nudging, it aims for libertarian paternalism—the idea that it is both possible and legitimate for institutions to influence behaviour while also respecting freedom of choice. In the government context, this approach proves valuable by utilising human cognitive biases to gently guide citizens towards better choices, avoiding the need for heavy-handed interventions while remaining cost-effective and easily implementable.
Governments worldwide increasingly turn to behavioural insights as a supplementary or alternative approach to traditional economic tools. According to the World Bank Report “Behavioural Science Around the World”, ten countries are highlighted as pioneers of the use of behavioural insights: Australia, Canada, Denmark, France, Germany, The Netherlands, Peru, Singapore, the UK, and the US (Guay, 2019).
Established in 2010 by psychologist David Halpern, the first government-embedded behavioural insights team (BIT) in the UK, often informally referred to as the “nudge unit,” will be the central focus of this paragraph, exploring its implementation of the nudging theory in the country.
The BIT employs various nudging techniques, including defaults (setting a preferred option as the automatic choice), social proof heuristics (influencing behaviour by showcasing others’ actions to provoke imitation), and adding or removing frictions (introducing or eliminating obstacles).
Tax payment reminder:
One notable application of nudging, specifically using social proof heuristics, involves a collaboration with HMRC (His Majesty’s Revenue and Customs) to test the impact of tax payment reminders. Norm-based messages, highlighting how responsible individuals pay their taxes on time, led to more people making timely tax payments, resulting in an increase of over £1.6 million within 23 days (Hallsworth, 2017).
Automatic pension enrolment:
Another successful nudge involves automatic pension enrolment, where workers are enrolled by default upon joining a company. This simplifies the process by setting the default choice, encouraging individuals to stick with it rather than actively choosing to leave the scheme.
The first-year results of auto-enrolment, encompassing 1.9 million workers in large companies, demonstrate a remarkable success with a mere 9% opt-out rate. The participation rate surged from 36% to 71%, surpassing predictions and underscoring the policy’s real-world effectiveness. Consequently, 400,000 more individuals are now enrolled in pension schemes, reflecting the positive impact of the initiative (BIT, 2013).
Finally, the BIT collaborated with various universities to implement “green nudges,” sustainable interventions aimed at positively impacting the climate. An example includes the University College Cork in Ireland, which simplified the use of reusable cups by installing cup washers on campus, resulting in a 20% increase in the adoption of reusable cups.
The last example highlights social proof heuristics. The University of Bath in the UK logged shower duration in campus residences and used the information in social norm messages. They found that students who were told they took longer than average showers decreased their shower time. Conversely, they also noted that those who were told they took shorter than average showers increased their shower time (BIT, 2020).
However, nudges often come with issues such as problem shifting, which involves consequence-redirecting behaviour (Straßheim, 2019). For instance, the students at the University of Bath, receiving shower duration messages might feel morally licensed (the phenomenon of engaging in undesired behaviour after having done a responsible act) to increase water usage in other ways, such as leaving the tap running while brushing teeth. Nudging would, in this sense, shift the problem instead of solving it. The effectiveness of nudges can also be further evaluated since they can depend on cultural, social, and individual factors. Since more governments turn to behavioural insights, it is imperative to consider the limitations and challenges associated with nudging.
All in all, libertarian paternalism addresses global challenges through small, targeted interventions for a cumulative positive effect. The use of nudging by governments has elicited both enthusiasm and sustained critical attention from various political perspectives.
The Ethical Implications of Governments Using These Tools:
While the impact of nudging on social behaviour is clear, ethical concerns arise in governmental contexts. Defining the line between nudging and manipulation becomes crucial. Many would argue that living in a society involves implicit agreement to some level of behavioural influence by the government, from encouraging law-abiding behaviour to incentivising actions for social welfare. Nudging is inevitable in such contexts. However, distinguishing between ‘good’ and ‘bad’ nudges hinges on their respective positive or negative social outcomes.
For the most part, UK government nudging has been an effective tool in leading people towards these ‘right’ choices. For instance, due to NHS organ donation nudging campaigns, “in 2022/23… the total number of patients whose lives were potentially saved or improved by an organ transplant increased by 5% to 4,532” (NHS, 2023). One would not dispute that donating an organ to help save another person’s life is a wrong act; most would argue it is a moral act. Not only this, but often nudges can leave us better off financially and legally: from promoting enrollment into pension schemes that promote building more secure futures, to using herd mentality to ensure taxes are paid on time, to urging banks to incentivise the creation of savings accounts (Mullett, 2022). Equally, the fundamental principle of nudge theory is to influence human behaviour whilst respecting one’s freedom of choice. So, the idea of a nudge is no different from one’s friend trying to convince them to go out for a meal. They may present the benefits in a way that overshadows the drawbacks, appealing to your emotions or rationality, but your freedom of choice is still fundamentally intact. You still have the ability to decline such an offer. For these reasons, the critics of nudge theory can be, and have been, reassured of its ethical soundness.
However, ethical issues arise not just because of the choices we’re being influenced to make, but more because of the fact that we’re being influenced – it can be argued that this reduces our human autonomy. A key pillar of autonomy is the ability to choose external options without external intervention (Schmidt & Engelen, 2020), and this simply is not the case with nudge theory.
Suppose there is a woman who wanted to be a lawyer all her life but never could, and it was her biggest regret. Now imagine that she has a son, and she decides she wants her son to be a lawyer. From the moment he can walk she takes him to courts of law, dresses him in legal attire, watches legal television shows with him, and only paints the field of law as a viable career path. By the time he can read and write, the son decides he wants to be a lawyer and chooses the subjects he studies accordingly; his mother lives vicariously through him as he goes on to study law at university and eventually becomes a practising lawyer.
This case is one in which the mother has effectively removed all other options from her son’s field of decision making, yet this would meet all the criteria of a nudge, seeing as the mother “interven[ed]” by “changing the presentation of choices” in order to “predictably alter [his] behaviour” and the boy’s freedom of choice did remain intact, seeing as he did choose his own career path. However, ethically speaking, this situation is not right, because the boy was manipulated. The mother effectively chose her son’s life trajectory for him. This is where government intervention regarding the behavioural patterns and decisions of its citizens can become a dangerous ethical issue. If we are taught how to think and told what we want, governments can strip us of our autonomy under the harmless pretext of a nudge.
Whilst we are yet to truly see and experience the exact consequences of nudging, without careful thought and implementation the idea of “libertarian paternalism” (Sunstein and Thaler, 2003) can certainly be perverted into a much more dangerous form of influence – for example, menticide, also known as brainwashing – and this must be prevented at all costs.
This paper has systematically explored how companies and governments employ behavioural tools in order to influence decision-making.
Companies use message framing and choice architecture in the form of loss-message framing, psychological pricing, colour psychology, herd mentality framing, collaborative filtering, convenience strategies, and feedback systems as some common ways to leverage human bias for profit-maximisation. These tools have practical limitations, as behavioural economics is still underdeveloped and companies do not have the know-how to fully leverage customer biases. On the other hand, governments have increasingly embraced nudging to address societal challenges. The UK’s Behavioural Insights Team (BIT) has successfully applied nudging techniques in areas such as tax payments, pension enrollment, and green nudges, showcasing the effectiveness of small, targeted interventions. The practical issues of these tools, however, arise when nudges cause behaviour like moral licensing, shifting one irresponsible behaviour to another instead of fixing the original behaviour. In general, it has also been discussed that the extent of how effective behaviour tools are depends on the demographics of individuals.
The ethical implications of these tools have also been thoroughly examined. Choice architecture, despite concerns about intrusiveness, can be seen as a means to preserve autonomy by ensuring informed choices. However, criticisms arise when there is demonstrated interference with customers’ individual preferences, potentially manipulating people’s decisions. Herd mentality, when employed unethically, can lead to misinformation and erode consumer trust, as the herd mentality of customers is exploited for company benefit. Finally, the framing effect, though a powerful tool, raises concerns about manipulating emotions and distorting reality. Although government initiatives aim to guide citizens towards economically sustainable choices, ethical considerations arise when the line between nudging and manipulation becomes blurred—the tension lies in balancing collective welfare with individual autonomy.
As nudging continues to play a significant role in shaping choices at both individual and societal levels, ongoing discourse and scrutiny are essential to ensure that the fine line between influence and manipulation is maintained and not blurred, preserving the autonomy and well-being of individuals. As a closing point, we call for any government body, company, and organisation to always keep in mind the moral considerations that exist alongside the very attractive benefits that nudges offer.
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