Chris Bousquet Grey

By Chris Bousquet • February 28, 2017

Eating more healthily, saving more, or recycling are all things that most people would agree they’d like to do more of. Yet, even with the best intentions, people often won’t actually change their behavior. Whether it be inconvenience, lack of time, or simply not knowing where to start, we often don’t do the things that we know we should.

However, nudges from governments, non-profits, and private companies can help reverse that inertia and produce more desirable behaviors from residents. Nudges are choice-preserving interventions that leverage insights from behavioral science to combat people’s cognitive biases or habits and encourage healthier behaviors. These interventions change people’s choice architecture—the physical, social, and psychological context that influences decision making—to promote preferred behaviors. Nudging may take many forms, but some common categories are communications that encourage certain actions, default rules that make healthy behaviors the norm, and simplifications of processes to make desirable actions easier. One popular example of a nudge comes from Google, which reorganized its fridge to promote healthier eating. Simply by putting bottled water at eye level and soda at the bottom of its fridge, Google increased water intake by 47 percent and reduced soda consumption by 7 percent.

With the help of non-profits and experts in behavioral science, governments have begun using nudging to encourage more desirable behaviors in a variety of areas, including debt repayment, healthcare, and driving safety. Perhaps most appealing to governments is nudging’s cost-effectiveness—nudging often requires only a few inexpensive tweaks, but can produce tremendous value. A nudge is usually tested using a randomized control trial (RCT), in which a randomly-selected subset of service recipients receive the intervention and the government compares their behavior to a control group. A government can test multiple iterations of the nudge over time to determine the most effective framing. Below are ten examples of nudges that have helped governments save money, improve public health, conserve the environment, and accomplish a number of other goals.

Lexington’s Sewer Fee Letters

Many cities have started using nudging to improve payments of debts owed by residents. Lexington, KY, for example, has begun nudging residents to pay their sewer fees, which have become a significant source of debt in places where these fees are disaggregated from citizens’ broader water bills. With the help of the Behavioral Insights Team—the organization started in the British Government that teams up with governments to develop behaviorally-informed policies—Lexington tested enclosing a courtesy letter along with residents’ sewer bills that informed recipients they were at risk of having their water shut off and included a handwritten note on the envelope stating “[Person’s name], you really need to read this.” The letter improved the likelihood of the customer making a payment by 34.2 percent, increasing net revenue by over $112,000 in the trial period, a $71 return on every dollar spent.

New Mexico’s Fraud Reduction Efforts

Similarly, governments have used nudging to reduce fraud and thereby curtail improper government payments. New Mexico has implemented a three-tiered nudge to discourage fraud in the unemployment system. The first part attempts to encourage claimants to accurately report the reason for their unemployment by attaching a copy of the verification letter sent to former employers. Another part incorporates a pop-up message, a required signature, and clearer wording to improve the accuracy of reported hours worked. The final part requires claimants to commit to taking specific actions in the job hunt to encourage more active pursuit of employment.

New Orleans’ Text Reminders

New Orleans has applied nudging to its public health efforts, texting residents in an attempt to improve take-up rates for free health check-ups. In a trial facilitated by the Behavioral Insights Team through the What Works Cities program, New Orleans sent text messages to more than 21,000 low-income adults who had not seen a primary care physician in two years or longer. The city tested three types of text messages: the “simplicity” message read, “Txt YES to be contacted to set up a FREE doctor’s appt.,” the “ego” message said, “You have been selected for a FREE doctor’s appt.,” and the “social motivation” message that told residents, “Take care of yourself so you can care for the ones you love.” New Orleans found that the “ego” message was most likely to elicit a “yes” response from residents.

USDA’s Reduced-Price Meal Initiative

The federal government’s Social and Behavioral Science Team (SBST) has implemented a nudge to ensure that low-income students do not miss out on free or reduced-price school meals offered under the National School Lunch Program. The White House and Department of Agriculture’s Food and Nutrition Service (FNS) have launched pilots that allow states to use Medicaid data to automatically enroll students who qualify. And, to help eligible students retain access to reduced-price meals, FNS and SBST collaborated with 70 school districts to better communicate and streamline the registration process.

Department of Energy’s Clean Energy Nudge

The Department of Energy’s (DOE) Office of Energy Efficiency and Renewable Energy teamed up with the Social and Behavioral Science Team to identify barriers to consumer adoption of clean energy and behavioral tools to address these barriers. Their research indicated that prompting customers to choose power plans from among clean and non-clean options rather than defaulting them to standard plans may increase take-up of clean energy, as can providing Home Energy Scores, which furnish recommendations for improving home energy efficiency.

Canterbury’s Car Pollution Nudge

Researchers at the University of East Anglia in the U.K tested a nudge to reduce pollution from idle cars at a busy railroad crossing in Canterbury, England. Researchers designed a sign that read “Think of yourself: When barriers are down switch off your engine,” which increased the amount of engine killing from 20 percent to 50 percent.

Edinburgh’s Smaller Trash Bins

To encourage residents to recycle more and throw out less trash, Edinburgh halved the size of the trash bins distributed to households and directed citizens to use the larger bins for recycling. The city now distributes 140-liter (37 gallon) bins for landfill waste, in comparison to the 240-liter (63 gallon) bins used for recycling. As a result of the change, recycling rates have increased by 85 percent in the city.

Boston’s Nudge for Traffic Safety

Cities have also used nudges to improve safety in transportation. In order to improve driving safety, Boston introduced Boston’s Safest Driver, a smartphone app that provides feedback on driving based on speed, acceleration, braking, cornering, and phone distraction. The city gives away weekly prizes to the safest driver in an effort to promote safe practices.

$ave NYC

Some governments have used nudging to encourage beneficial financial behaviors. New York City, for example, promoted saving with a program called $ave NYC, which provided a financial incentive to those who chose to open a savings account at the same time they did their taxes. The city offered a 50 percent savings match for low-income tax filers who left savings in the account for one year. Though only half of the program’s participants had any history of saving, 80 percent saved for at least one year to receive the match and 75 percent continued to save even after the year.   

Handbook for Prisoner Re-Entry

With the help of the Social and Behavioral Science Team, the Bureau of Prisons developed a prisoner re-entry handbook, designed to help inmates released from federal prison reintegrate into society. The handbook leverages a number of insights from behavioral science, including a checklist of action steps for inmates before and after their release and accompanying resources to support these actions. Moreover, the handbook emphasizes former inmates’ role as valued community members and attempts to de-stigmatize subjects like mental health to encourage readers to pursue appropriate services.

The potential applications and benefits of nudging are clearly broad, producing tremendous public value at little cost to taxpayers. However, it is important for governments to keep in mind that nudging is not a cure-all. Elspeth Kirkman, Senior Vice President of the Behavioral Insights Team, explained that there are a few guidelines for areas where nudging is most effective. For one, nudging should be applied to problems where there is a clear outcome measure. In order to encourage more desirable behaviors, governments need to be able to isolate the behavior they want to change. For example, encouraging drivers to turn off their vehicles at busy intersections is a good use of nudging because the desired outcome is clear, whereas something like improving air quality may be too vague of a policy objective. Moreover, Kirkman stressed the need to focus on areas where the government can promote buy in. To successfully implement nudging, a government will often need to show that the old way of doing things was not working, so targeting particularly inefficient and unpopular practices is a useful strategy.

For governments interested in implementing nudging, a number of resources are available. University of Toronto’s Rotman School of Management published A Practitioner’s Guide to Nudging, which provides an organizational framework for categorizing nudges, case studies, and process guidelines for implementing nudges. Cass Sunstein’s Nudging: A Very Short Guide outlines some of the most important categories of nudges and provides recommendations for institutionalizing nudging. And, for up-to-date nudging news, the Behavioral Insights Team has a regular blog covering uses of behavioral science in policy.