How “Nudge Theory” is changing engagement


What is now called “nudge theory” isn’t totally new. The first wind-up alarm clock, for example, was a rudimentary technology nudging humans to do something they wouldn’t necessarily do on their own. It just wasn’t until much later that nudge theory became “branded” — thanks to Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein writing their book Nudge, which was published in 2008.

Nudge theory’s applications require no technology at all. One of the more vivid examples is when pubs have placed plastic bullseyes in men’s urinals for obvious reasons. However, technology is accelerating and expanding the ways humans can be nudged and, more importantly, rewarded (or penalized) for behaviors that affect their lives.

In 2019, that old wind-up alarm clock is now often found within the same device we use as our residential phone and camera. And that device is also increasingly becoming a utility for reminding us — or “nudging” us — about how to conduct many different aspects of our lives. At the same time, new and sophisticated machine learning algorithms have allowed data scientists to gather much richer insight on the relationship between technology and behavioral change.

Nudge theory apps

Many nudging apps focus on health and lifestyle. An many countries use nudge theory to encourage organ donation when interacting with a variety of government related registration forms. But nudging theory also has roots in financial well-being. One of the original applications was designed to encourage British citizens to establish retirement accounts. Many of the finance and banking apps now send alerts encouraging customers to shift funds to instruments that provide greater returns, or to simply watch your spending.

The greatest nudge theory game changer is arguably in the healthcare sector though. In 2016, Penn Medicine launched the Nudge Unit to systematically develop and test approaches using this form of conditioning to improve health care delivery. Their work ranges from increasing vaccinations to monitoring weight loss.

One recurring theme in healthcare nudge applications is gamification, or simply making the nudge more entertaining than just a random act with little chance of repetition. The other is an element of coaching, where either the app’s logic or a real-life counselor compliment the interaction with the app. For example, in the case of the nudging app Zillion, a coach sends a message to ensure the patient understands the prescription instructions and as a reminder to take the pills at a certain time. This example also brings to mind one of the key factors in the success of nudged gamification: the engagement must occur at exactly the right time with exactly the right personalized information.

The eponymous app Nudge features a personalized one-one-one nudging effect but also adds outside social influences that may be useful in peer-driven change. Many researchers feel that unless peer-group benchmarks are included in nudging, many will not respond simply by tough love from a coach.

More importantly they are extending this reach to the very trendy, value-based population health segment where data from universes of consumers or patients are translated into more specific insights related to similar populations of people with those ailments.

Beyond healthcare

As mentioned at the beginning, healthcare is a natural for nudging, but the carryover into many other industries has occurred. Apps like Mint , for example, aggregate all of your bank accounts and financial instruments and send alerts based on spending habits and investment goals.

One of the more interesting applications was from the New Mexico unemployment compensation department to develop a more trustworthy reporting of hours worked versus how much was permitted to get benefits. The program combines nudging about filling out the reports with the concept of “priming” — in which people are exposed to a stimuli that reminds them of the value of honesty, as a means of making them more likely to behave honestly. According to the study, the unemployed were asked to attest to their honesty before they filled out their form rather than the usual checkoff box at the end. This simple and subtle technique resulted in a doubling of the number of claimants who accurately reported earnings compared to the control group.

With that, let this sentence serve as a nudge for you to read other postings in my Feral Leadership blogs!

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