At the heart of nudging is the idea that we don’t have unlimited amounts of free will and energy. No, we get lazy, tired, worn out and sometimes just don’t pay attention. However, to coerce people would be immoral. We all have our right to choose – no matter how bad the choice. That’s why nudging focuses on the choice architecture. That means changing the decision situation so that people will in fact choose better, i.e. they are more likely choose what they want in the long term, instead of succumbing to the willpower or attention deficits in the immediate situation. It’s like building hallways that make more sense, and lead you more directly to where you want to go. You can still choose to go someplace else, getting what you (usually) want has just been made a little easier.
The main finding from the last decades is that we have two main ways to make choices. The first is System 1, which is a fast, associative and unreflective way. System 1 is the one we use most of the time, because it’s easy and requires little effort. System 2, on the other hand, is slow, reflective, and requires a lot of effort. That’s one big reason why we cannot use System 2 all the time. As it stands, System 1 is quite error-prone: with bad decision architecture, it can focus on wrong cues and lead to really stupid choices. But with a good architecture, choosing is smooth sailing. Choosing with System 2, on the other hand, is tough and effortful, but should in most cases lead to a good choice.
This very rough and simplified theory leads to two main ways to nudge: improving the architecture for a better System 1 choice, or engaging System 2 for the choice. Both are legitimate and powerful options. Which to use – well, that depends on the context. Let’s look at some known examples:
The 20 second rule
You’re at home, watching your favorite TV show with pleasure. As often is the case, you feel a slight twinge of hunger – a snacking hunger. What do you eat? Usually, at this point people go to the kitchen and get somethinIg that’s in easy reach and doesn’t need preparing – like chocolate, or chips. What if the chips were on the top shelf? Would you still get them?
A variation of the 20 second rule is to create default routines. That means creating patterns, which will be beneficial for you and which you will execute even when tired. For example, our PhD seminars have time and again told us to write in the morning, every day you come to work. For one thing, writing is important, and this pattern ensures I’ll have time for it. For a second thing – and I think this is even more important – having writing as a default routine ensures I’ll start writing even when tired, confused or just “not feeling like it”. But usually, once I get off the ground, I’ll be in the mood.
Blocking easy cues
For engaging System 2, it can help to block cues that System 1 would like to use. For example, a known problem is the halo effect, meaning perceiving one good attribute will cause us to evaluate other attributes more highly, too. For example, people tend to think better looking people are also more intelligent. If you’re evaluating project proposals, you could hide the names of the proposers and evaluate the proposals just on their own terms. Having the names visible might influence you in a bad way. After all, you wouldn’t want to approve a project just because it’s been proposed by a colleague you like to play tennis with? Or, to remove the effect of visual design, have the proposals submitted on a template, so they all look alike (a lot of foundations seem to do this). Making decisions based on template proposals without names is going to be harder - but that’s the point. Necessarily, you will have to focus on the content, since System 1 doesn’t have a lot to go on anymore. And, being a diligent person, your System 2 choices will outperform the System 1 choices.
So, as a wrap-up, here are the two main pathways to nudging towards better choices:
1. Helping System 1 to better options by better choice architecture
2. Engaging System 2 by blocking System 1
Which option to go for depends on the case. The more complex the decision at hand, the better option 2 is going to be. In contrast, the more often a choice situation occurs, the more sense it makes to use System 1 on that, saving energy.