A stick figure proclaiming, “10 shocking nudges that changed humanity! #5 will blow your mind!”
Hi, there

Did your love of behavioral science spark in 2008, when you first happened upon Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s influential book Nudge? Yeah, me too.

The concept of nudging – after skyrocketing to mainstream popularity with its titular book – helped bring behavioral science from the realm of econ nerds and psychology buffs to the rest of the world.

Nudges have subtly reshifted our world. Through classic behavioral concepts like framing or default options, policymakers and choice architects have slowly guided the world toward a brighter future.

To name a couple classics, Thaler’s iconic Save More Tomorrow program has helped over 15 million Americans save for retirement. And organ donation rates have increased up to 143% in some jurisdictions.

But despite its successes (and sometimes because of them), nudging has received a rollercoaster of press and public opinion over the years.

Its libertarian paternalist philosophy has been critiqued for undermining personal freedom. Its (sometimes questionable) use in marketing has been targeted as manipulative. Sludge and phishing are just two examples of using behavioral insights for private interest, rather than social good.

And that’s not to mention field-wide challenges like the replication crisis and media scandals. Problems like publication bias and data falsification aren’t unique to behavioral science – but in a young field, each negative impact ripples far further. The high expectations of an emerging field can create large shoes to fill.

We’re passionate about nudges. And we’re passionate about seeing them done right. Nudging isn’t a one-size-fits-all magic wand – but when used correctly, they can change the world for the better.

So today, we’re diving into the complex media spotlight on nudges and taking a look at the right way to nudge. 

Until next time,
Sarah and the die-hard nudgers @ TDL

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Today’s topics 👀

 📰 DEEP DIVE: Nudging in the News
☕ FIELD NOTES: One Cup at a Time
🪫 VIEWPOINTS: The Limits of the Nudge

📰 Nudging in the News

+ Sensationalist journalism. We love reading about our own quirky behavior. So much so that new besci studies are quick to find a spotlight in the news or self-help books, long before they’re reliably replicated. This leads to widespread belief before theories have a chance to be thoroughly tested.

+ Publish or perish. Academics are under immense pressure to publish, occasionally leading to unfortunate shortcuts: p-hacking and data falsification, to name a few. As in other fields, these structural pressures are often harmful long-term.

+ Scandals abound. When prominent figures face scandal, it can leak into the field surrounding them. Behavioral economics has seen high-profile scandals in the past few years, each of which has called much of the entire young field into question. 

+ Witchcraft or 1984? News media coverage of nudges has long focused on fears of paternalism and manipulation, charactizing them as “psychological tricks” and “manipulation” to “increase compliance”. This framing can influence whether policy makers and politicians decide to use nudges as a complement to their own efforts.

FIELD NOTES: One Cup at a Time

When done properly, nudges can help both individuals and the world around them. And what’s better than nudging towards a sustainable planet?

We know a thing or two about nudges, and we’re lucky to put them to use for all kinds of social good. For example, an international coffee chain sought out TDL to help increase their customers’ use of reusable cups.

In order to scale across tens of thousands of stores, we needed low-cost, high-impact nudges. After a deep dive into green purchasing and habit formation, we created a behavioral playbook of non-coercive interventions to roll out worldwide.

Our client has been piloting this sustainability initiative, with hundreds of thousands of cups already diverted from landfills – and that’s just the beginning. Read more about the project in our case study

A hand holds up a green reusable coffee mug.
🪫 The Limits of the Nudge 

Any practitioner worth their salt will acknowledge the limitations of behavioral economic interventions. Nudges can influence a wide variety of positive change in the world – but as Maslow’s famous law of the hammer explains, having a hammer doesn’t make every problem a nail. 

+ Complement, don’t substitute. As two founders of the field explain, “behavioral economics should complement, not substitute for, more substantive economic interventions.” If econ analysts suggest charging more for sugary drinks, behavioral economics can determine whether it’s best to subsidize healthy beverages or tax sodas.

+ We can’t always be nudged. Nudges are usually designed to help us pick choices we want. They’re unable to make us take actions we don’t want, even if they lead to societal good – like isolating during the pandemic

+ Band-Aids for bigger problems. Nudging can’t replace sticky political and economic issues. For example, including nutrition labels on fast food will only help consumers pick nutritious options when the nutritious options are financially (and otherwise) accessible. Nudges can help us shift behavior, but they can’t change the roots of the problems they aim to solve. 

+ Get bespoke. Nudges aren’t cut-and-paste – they need to be tailored to specific environmental, social, and cultural contexts. Trust us: reducing binge-drinking in Canada is wildly different than reducing binge-drinking in South Africa. And phasing out diesel cars in Rome will requires an appeal to traditional Italian values. As long as context changes, effective nudges will too. 
A study from Behavioral Sciences examines the published studies on nudges from 2012 to 2021. A rapid growth was seen in 2018.
A study from Behavioral Sciences examines the published studies on nudges from 2012 to 2021. A rapid growth was seen in 2018 and future numbers are expected to see continued growth.
Are Nudges Fun?

The term ‘nudge’ was popularized by University of Chicago economist Richard Thaler and Harvard Law professor Cass Sunstein. Their field-defining book made nudges an overnight sensation among policymakers and marketers alike, kickstarting the adoption of hundreds of nudge units around the world.

We had the pleasure to sit down with Cass Sunstein on The Decision Corner podcast, for his episode on How Fun Might Move the World. We answer the age-old question: why should nudges be fun?

The episode dives into the necessity of fun in behavior change, marketing, and policy-making – and what world-class athletes have to say about having fun under pressure. 

What’s new at TDL?

In the latest edition of Myth-Busting with Cynthia, our Associate Project leader explains the ins and outs of manipulation in behavioral science. When do we draw the line between nudging for good and undermining personal freedom?

You can check out her blog post here: Myth-Busting with Cynthia: Is Behavioral Science Manipulative?

TDL is hiring! We’re hiring for a number of positions, both remote and based in our Montreal office. Some open roles include:

  • Associate Project Leader

Find out more by visiting our careers portal

Want to have your voice heard? We'd love to hear from you. Reply to this email to share your thoughts, feedback, and questions with the TDL team.
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