Are We Willing to Nudge Ourselves?: Paper Summary

Intervention · Health

We can use nudges to improve our health decision-making, like walking more or drinking less. But are we willing to nudge our own behavior?

We can use nudges to improve our health decision-making, like walking more or drinking less. But are we willing to nudge our own behavior?

Imagine someone offers you an invisible tool to improve your health, better manage your finances, or ditch that pesky pack of cigarettes. Would you accept it? Or would you back away slowly?

This isn't just a thought experiment; it's a real question about behavioral interventions (BIs). While BIs come in all shapes and sizes, this study focused on the first level of BIs: the individual.

Individual BIs are implemented by the person changing their own behavior. Think of an app that encourages you to quit smoking, or a reminder on your fridge to eat more vegetables. Individual BIs are small pushes to change our patterns for the better – whatever ‘better’ might mean for you. 

BIs can be an easy, cost-effective way to change our behavior. But are we willing to be nudged for our own good?

What did they do in the study?

To find out, the researchers set out to find out how the public perceives BIs – particularly when these nudges are aimed at their own habits. They surveyed 872 American and 843 U.K. participants using an online platform, asking questions in a variety of the below contexts.

The subjects were shown real behavior changes that had been implemented in nutrition, exercise, smoking, alcohol, and personal finance behaviors. The changing contexts included:

  • Transparency of the BI: Whether the nudge's goal and how it worked were clear (transparent) or not (opaque).
  • Designer of the BI: Was the intervention created by academic researchers, government officials, or advertisers?
  • Arguments on efficacy: Participants were given either completely positive, mixed positive and negative, or completely negative views on the effectiveness of the nudges.

What were the results?

Transparency was key to how BIs were perceived. We love to be informed: people consistently favored interventions that were upfront and clear about their intentions – transparent BIs had much higher acceptability than opaque ones.

While there was an overall trend of acceptance towards most of the nudges, there was an exception for those relating to personal finances. When a personal finance intervention was opaque, participants had hesitations about its trustworthiness. 

How effective a BI is perceived to be plays a crucial role in its acceptability: sometimes the perceived effectiveness of the nudge overshadowed considerations of its transparency. In essence, the sentiment was "If it proves effective, I'm more likely to accept it." 

Lastly, a link was identified between the acceptance of BIs and individuals' personal desires to improve. This suggests that when people believe a nudge is pushing them to improve, they're more likely to accept it.

What does this mean for society?

Our relationship with nudges is complicated. While we all want to improve ourselves, we have varying levels of commitment, our willingness to accept help, and our trust in others. 

This study sheds light on a few factors that can increase acceptance of individual behavioral interventions. Whether we're trying to get healthier or save money, it's clear that we like to know what's going on and we’ll embrace effective options.

In a world full of complex decision-making, nudges can stealthily help us make better choices. But like any other tool, their power comes from how well they’re used. As the debate on the ethics of nudges persists, one thing is clear: people want to be "better off, as judged by themselves."


  1. Cutler, D. M. (2004). Behavioral Health Interventions: What Works and Why? From Critical Perspectives on Racial and Ethnic Differences in Health in Late Life. Washington, DC: National Academies Press.
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