4 Self-Nudging Tricks That Make Doing the Right Thing Easier

Self-nudgers can improve their self-control with minimal amounts of willpower.

Posted May 26, 2020

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Why is making healthier lifestyle choices in our day-to-day lives so challenging? Everybody knows that bad habits are hard to break. The seemingly unstoppable power of hedonic motivation drives us to seek pleasure and instant gratification.

Resisting temptation often feels like an uphill battle that requires Herculean willpower and boatloads of self-control. Wouldn't it be great if you could make healthier lifestyle choices and improve your self-control without the need for heroic amounts of willpower?

A recent behavioral science theory paper (Reijula & Hertwig, 2020) by Samuli Reijula of the University of Helsinki and Ralph Hertwig of the Max Planck Institute for Human Development identifies four self-nudging techniques that may improve your self-control with minimal willpower.

Their paper, "Self-Nudging and the Citizen Choice Architect," was published online March 26 in the journal Behavioural Public Policy. "This article argues that nudges can often be turned into self-nudges: empowering interventions that enable people to design and structure their own decision environments—that is, to act as citizen choice architects," Reijula and Hertwig state in the opening line of their paper.

What Does It Mean to Be a Choice Architect?

"The idea behind self-nudging is that people can design and structure their own environments in ways that make it easier for them to make the right choices—and ultimately to reach their long-term goals," the authors explain in a news release.

Reijula and Hertwig also describe how the choices we make are part of an environmental architecture that can be rearranged via a two-step process:

"The first step [of self-nudging] is to understand how the environment in which we make our choices—also known as the choice architecture—influences our decisions. The second step is to change that architecture—whether it be the constant notifications from our smartphone or the positioning of the foods in our fridge—in ways that enable us to make choices that are in our own interests."

Self-nudging is an aspect of nudge theory, which has been around for decades. In 1993, James Wilk of the University of Oxford—who is credited with coining the term "nudge"—gave a first-of-its-kind lecture on "The Art of the Nudge." 

In 2008, nudge theory gained mainstream popularity after Nobel Prize winner Richard Thaler of the University of Chicago Booth School of Business and co-author Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School published their bestselling book, Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness.

In 2018, fellow Psychology Today blogger, Eva Krockow of the University of Leicester, wrote about nudge theory and how small changes in choice architecture can have a big influence on decision-making in a post, "'Nudge' Yourself Toward Better Choices." For anyone who wants to become a better choice architect, Krockow offers some straightforward, practical advice. She says:

"Using nudges to your advantage can be simple if you follow these two principles: For a nudge to be successful, it must (1) decrease the effort required to make the desired choice and (2) improve our motivation to opt for that choice."

In a May 11, 2020 news release, "Using Self-Nudging to Make Better Choices," Samuli Reijula and Ralph Hertwig offer four specific examples of self-nudging tools we can all use. 

  1. Use reminders and prompts. As an example, you can use Post-It notes or smartphone apps to remind you of target behaviors on a regular basis. 
  2. Choose a different framing. For example, you can reframe daily exercise as something that stimulates the production of self-made endocannabinoids that make you feel good as opposed to a disagreeable experience that makes you unhappy. 
  3. Reduce the accessibility of temptations. As an example, you could avoid buying junk food at the store and bringing it home in the first place. Or, if you have some unhealthy snack food in the kitchen, keep it out of sight in hard to reach places. 
  4. Increase accountability via social pressure. For example, you could make a public commitment to friends or family that if you break an agreed-upon resolution, you'll donate X amount of money to the campaign fund of a political candidate you vehemently don't want to win an upcoming election.

How Can Policymakers Use Self-Nudging to Improve Public Health?

In closing, this paper also addresses a host of very complex and hotly debated issues surrounding public policy and nudging. When government policymakers nudge too hard and come across as paternalistic, many citizens interpret these nudges as restrictions of their freedom. One example of this phenomenon is the partisan culture war that has erupted over people being "nudged" to wear masks in public during the COVID-19 pandemic. (See "How Egoism Is Making the Pandemic Worse")

To the best of my knowledge, Reijula and Hertwig haven't addressed coronavirus-related public health "nudges" through the lens of their latest self-nudging theory. However, their pre-coronavirus observations about how citizen choice architecture and self-nudging function in a general context offer some valuable insights for policymakers. According to Ralph Hertwig:

"A government that gives its citizens targeted and easily understandable information on ways of using self-nudging in formats such as fact boxes, apps, or brochures can pursue socially accepted goals such as promoting healthier eating habits by enabling its citizens to make more informed and self-determined decisions. Of course, self-nudges do not replace regulations and other measures but they extend the policymakers' toolkit."

One of the most significant benefits of self-nudging as opposed to someone else nudging you is that it avoids the onerous childhood feeling of being coerced by a nagging parent or paternalistically manipulated. Too much paternalism can make nudges seem like an infringement on someone's liberty or autonomy and trigger reactance.

As Reijula and Hertwig sum up, "Self-nudging applies insights from behavioral science in a way that is practicable and cost-effective, but that sidesteps concerns about paternalism or manipulation."

"Policymakers could promote self-nudging by sharing knowledge about nudges and how they work," the authors conclude. "The ultimate goal of the self-nudging approach is to enable citizen choice architects' efficient self-governance, where reasonable, and the self-determined arbitration of conflicts between their mutually exclusive goals and preferences."


Samuli Reijula and Ralph Hertwig. "Self-Nudging and the Citizen Choice Architect." Behavioural Public Policy (First published online: March 26, 2020) DOI: 10.1017/bpp.2020.5

James Wilk. "Mind, Nature and the Emerging Science of Change: An Introduction to Metamorphology." Metadebates on Science (1999) DOI: 10.1007/978-94-017-2245-2_6

James Wilk. "The Art of the Nudge: Minimalist Intervention and the Science of Change." Invited Address to the Strategic Planning Society, Privately Circulated, June 1993.