"Nudge" Yourself Toward Better Choices

Little changes to the choice context can have big influences on decision making

Posted Nov 05, 2018

It’s yet another Monday morning and—let’s just be honest—you’re simply glad you made it out of bed. When you finally reach the office (10 minutes late), you make a quick detour to the coffee shop, because you obviously didn’t have time for breakfast. Your eyes scan the shop displays and are drawn to the front row of perfectly shaped, beautifully flaky chocolate croissants with just a light dusting of delicately powdered sugar. You also can’t help but notice the new coffee creation displayed on the big poster board—an indulgent drink with heaps of whipped cream. Even though you’d originally come for a hearty bowl of porridge, you find yourself walking out with a bag of pastries and an extra-large cup of comforting coffee.

Does that sound at all familiar? Has it ever happened to you?

Decisions on autopilot

If you found yourself nodding along to the last two questions, do not worry. You certainly won't be the only one. In spite of many good intentions, we often give in to temptation. There are so many choices to make each day that many of them are made on autopilot. We often rely on easy rules of thumb rather than consciously weighing up the options. This automatic processing helps us deal with the complex challenges of too much choice, but it can also compromise the results. When using our in-built autopilot, the decision context ends up influencing our final choice, with the mere visibility and dominance of certain options (such as delicious-looking croissants and pretty coffee drinks) being powerful factors in determining the outcome.

This susceptibility to environmental cues makes us vulnerable to advertising, but it can also work to our advantage. In their immensely influential book “Nudge: Improving Decisions on Health, Wealth, and Happiness”, Nobel prize laureate Richard Thaler and Holberg Prize winner Cass Sunstein explain the science behind “nudging”. The concept involves making simple changes to the choice environment (also called choice architecture) to steer decisions in the right direction. Crucially, nudging never means restricting the available options. Instead, the approach relies on presenting options in a different way. The idea is to redesign choice architecture to gently guide decision makers toward better outcomes.

Becoming a choice architect

Esi Grünhagen/Pixabay
Take control and be your own choice architect
Source: Esi Grünhagen/Pixabay

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.

One way to nudge yourself toward healthier breakfast habits would be to prepare a nutritious food option the night before. You’d then put it right within eyesight, in a place where even your sleepy-eyed, morning-grumpy self can’t miss it. If a bowl of healthy overnight oats and berries is the first thing you spot when opening the fridge in the morning, the effort of making a good breakfast choice is reduced to near-zero. Furthermore, a pretty food presentation can help to provide that additional motivational boost to choose a healthy brekkie.  

Nudges can involve a vast range of different strategies. Another powerful example is the use of defaults. If you have a default breakfast order at your regular coffee shop, and the barista automatically serves you green tea and muesli upon arrival, any changes from the default require effort and become less tempting. A beautifully simple yet oh-so-powerful trick!

You could even rely on modern technology to give you that all-important little nudge toward better decision making. To support a healthy lifestyle, for example, a number of clever fitness apps can make all the difference, as they prompt you to log daily meal choices or track your weight. Similarly, if you are looking to become more active, mobile exercise programmes may help to get you going. As a yoga enthusiast, I swear by mobile yoga apps (my personal favourite is the paid app Alo Moves) that offer a large number of beautifully varied exercise programmes and often bring world-class instructors right into your living room.

Nudge author Richard Thaler famously stated that “just as no building lacks an architecture, so no choice lacks a context”. We need to use this knowledge to our advantage; by taking charge and designing the choice context we need, we can guide our own decision making and produce the choices we want.