How the “Nudge” is Changing Behaviour in Health and Research


Moving audiences from information to action in the digital space takes careful planning and a sound understanding of both digital tools and motivation theory.

When designing their trash and recycling system, the University of Pennsylvania had a goal: encourage people to recycle. Their solution, simply replace the word “Trash” with the word “Landfill.” After all, who would choose to throw something in the landfill if it could be recycled?

By presenting a simple choice, they encouraged a significant behaviour change. No preaching required.

Welcome to the science and practice of nudging.

“Nudging” was introduced to me a couple of years ago, by Signals  intern, Bree Galbraith, who was studying communication design at Emily Carr University. Since then, we’ve been looking at the concept’s alignment with digital technologies.

Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein introduced “nudging” in their 2008 book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness. Their theory was that it is helpful to “hide” behaviour change in positive experiences. The book is based strongly on the Nobel prize-winning work of the Israeli-American psychologists Daniel Kahneman and Amos Tversky.

Another good analog example of “nudging” is this Stockholm staircase that was made into a set of piano keys. When given the choice between an escalator or a fun staircase, the healthier option wins out. Users are not informed, preached at or even reminded of the benefits of taking the stairs. The nudge was just a better experience and the behaviour was changed.

Technology, more specifically, interfaces, offer organizations a chance to engage with audiences in ways that elicit action. We also know that all digital audiences are seeking meaningful experiences and interaction online. Creating these experiences is especially  important for our health, academic and human rights clients who aren’t seeking a “business” endpoint like a financial transaction. But rather are looking to educate and hopefully prompt behaviour change — which is often the hardest sell of them all.

So how do we take this concept into the digital world and apply it to healthy behaviours? Depending on the circumstance there are a number of options, all of which must employ some psychology theory related to motivation.

What kind of nudge would most appeal to an audience? If they’re motivated by fun and reward then gamification might be the recommendation.

Are they motivated by peer pressure? Then tools to share and notify might be the best route.

Are they motivated by social acceptance and knowledge? Then signing up for something exclusive might be the nudge they need.

These issues are never more important than when we create digital campaigns around changing health and social behaviours. We’ve employed nudging to encourage young women to get to a pharmacy for their HPV shot; as well as to get more women (prompted by their family members) to get screened for breast cancer.

Gone are the days when health organizations look to a brochure website to  simply “tell” audiences about themselves. When building a digital strategy or a web presence we should consider how to nudge the audience towards an action or behaviour that will improve their health.

Robyn will be speaking more on nudging and behaviour change in Toronto on February 25th.