Sometimes You Need a Nudge to Get Going

Here is a simple experiment to test a social change theory. Do you often need a nudge to get going? Read on and see what you think.


nudge to get going
Nudge to get going.

The most important thing in communication is to hear what isn’t being said.

Peter Drucker


Three hundred households in a California town were divided into two groups. Half were sent normal power bills, and the other half had a smiley face on their bills if their consumption was below average, and a frowning face if their usage was higher than average.


The results could not have been more conclusive: within the group with faces on their bills, high users reduced their electricity consumption, and low users consumed even less than before.


Simple enough? The difference was a little yellow circle on a piece of paper, but was it a significant impact?



Researchers have noted that creative people tend to re-conceptualize problems more often before starting a creative task. As Einstein once said, “If I had an hour to solve a problem I’d spend 55 minutes thinking about the problem and five minutes thinking about solutions.”



Nudge Theory rose to global prominence in 2008 with the release of the book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness, by Professor Richard Thaler and legal scholar Cass R. Sunstein. The volume brought the discourse on Nudge theory to the wider public of government, as well as the private sector involved in public health and related fields.


Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein cite the smiley experiment as a simple example of their theory that people can be gently encouraged to behave in socially desirable ways. Like shown here, even small incentives can improve people’s behavior. The two call it the nudge theory, quietly shepherding people in is the right direction.


They cite many examples of research which raise “serious questions about the rationality of many judgments and decisions that people make.” (Wikipedia)  They state that, unlike members of homo economicus, members of the species homo sapiens make predictable mistakes because of the way they are influenced by their social interactions.



These two leading US professors say that small pushes in the right direction can overcome people’s natural inertia and bring about large-scale social change; they call this effect nudge theory.


Simple enough? The difference was a little yellow circle on a piece of paper, but it had a big impact. Professors Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein cite the smiley experiment as a simple example of their theory that people can be gently encouraged to behave in socially desirable ways. Like shown here, even small incentives can improve people’s behavior. The two call it the nudge theory, quietly shepherding people in is the right direction.


Why should society need a nudge in the first place? The research team questions one of the major assumptions of economic theory, homo economicus, which is the idea that humans act in an enlightened and rational way to maximize their wellbeing. Their theory says no emotions play no a part in their behavior.

pay attention
Pay attention.

Here are 20 psychological nudges to get people to buy from ‘The small BIG – Small Changes that Spark Big Influence,’ the new book on marketing persuasion by Persuasion Science Rockstars psychologists Robert Cialdini and Noah Goldstein, and Steve Martin.


The small BIG a kind of Nudge meets Influence, the Psychology of Persuasion covering 50 small psychological nudges – drawn from psychological and behavioral science – that can make a big change the persuasive effectiveness of your marketing (or whatever/whoever you are trying to influence).


Many of the psychological nudges are built around Cialdini’s six universal persuasion principles (authority, social proof, scarcity, consistency, liking, reciprocity). They are based on the now-dominant idea that our minds have two systems for thinking and solving problems. One is fast, intuitive and mostly unconscious, and the other is slow, reasoned and deliberate.


Most people spend most of the time using System 1, only hauling System 2 out to ponder when we have to. The psychological nudges covered in ‘The small Big’ involve presenting information

in a way that fits the automatic biases and rules (heuristics) that make up our System 1 minds.

Here’re the first 20 psychological nudges for your study. In a future blog, we’ll cover the remaining 30

Nudge to get going  1

Nudge people to buy/pay by telling them about the large number of people who have already bought/paid (UK tax authority HMRC used this to boost payment from late-payers from 57% to 86%)

Nudge to get going 2

Nudge people to adopt a new product (go against the crowd/convention) by pairing crowd/convention behavior with unpopular/undesirable people/groups

Nudge to get going 3

Nudge people to buy by framing benefits (of buying) and costs (of not buying) based on what they see is the norm (e.g. if buying is the norm, then highlight the costs of not buying, but if buying is not the norm, highlight the benefits of buying)

Nudge 4

Nudge people to buy a new product (and thereby violate a social norm) by showing others actively buying (or in the case of pro-social behavior, if the social norm is to drop litter, show others picking up litter)

Nudge 5

Nudge people to pay attention by using their first name; our first name cues our attention (cocktail party phenomenon – from the background din of chatter, you notice when someone uses your name)

Nudge 6

Nudge people towards buying by focusing both on how they have similar traits to other buyers and that they are dissimilar to non-buyers (focus on uncommon commonalities)

Nudge 7

Nudge people to spot marketing opportunities by pairing them with a fresh set of eyes (familiarity leads to opportunity-blindness)

Nudge 8

Nudge people to buy by first securing an active (and public) pre-sales commitment (e.g. sign up for information – for instance, missed appointments dropped by 25% when patients filled in an appointment card themselves)

Nudge 9

Nudge people indirectly in small steps, by first encouraging them to engage (publicly if possible) in a low-cost activity consistent with buying, and then using further cues to trigger a purchase.

Nudge 10

Nudge people to buy ‘sinful/guilty’ products by providing them with a way to offset the guilt and ‘license’ the behavior (e.g. placing recycling bins in a room will encourage wasteful behavior)

Nudge 11

Nudge people using stories that illustrate the positive ’significance’ of purchase on others – rather than personal benefit.

Nudge 12

Nudge people by linking the desired behavior (e.g. buying) to that of someone they know, while linking non-compliance (not buying) to losing (not losing is often a greater motivator than winning)

Nudge 13

Nudge people to buy with ‘implementation intentions’ by getting them to predict purchase as likely – and encouraging them to specify the details (when, where, etc.)

Nudge 14

Nudge people to buy with ‘future lock-in’ by inviting them to commit to buying in the future (e.g. subscriptions)

Nudge 15

Nudge people to buy now because they owe it to their future selves (moral responsibility to their future self)

Nudge 16

Nudge people to buy by framing the benefits of purchase as an attainable challenge. Challenges motivate us, but only when we see them as attainable (5 a day fresh produce recommendation would work better if it were framed as 4-6)

Nudge 17

Nudge people to buy by first framing their options as a choice between two purchases, and then pointing our what they stand to lose if they don’t choose the option you want them to take (AKA ‘Enhanced Active Choice’)

Nudge 18

Nudge people with deadlines – an offer of just a few days will yield more purchases than a more flexible offer with a long expiry date

Nudge 19

Nudge people to stay waiting in line/on hold rather than quit using distraction techniques – like Disney queues, give them something entertaining to distract their attention and feeling they are wasting/losing time

Nudge 20

Nudge people to buy using ‘preference for potential’ – the way we find the future potential to be more compelling than past track record (people preferred Facebook clip suggest the artist could become the Next Big Thing, over the same clip suggesting the artist was currently The Next Big Thing.’


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More reading on learning from Digital Spark Marketing’s Library:
The Nine Most Valuable Secrets of Writing Effective Copy
How Good Is your Learning from Failure?
10 Extraordinary Ways for Learning to Learn
Continuous Learning Holds the Keys to Your Future Success
 Mike Schoultz is a digital marketing and customer service expert. With 48 years of business experience, he consults on and writes about topics to help improve the performance of small business. Find him on G+FacebookTwitter, Digital Spark Marketing, and LinkedIn.



Sometimes You Need a Nudge to Get Going