The concept of “nudging” has transformed how behavioral science is applied outside of academia. It refers to the art of crafting a person’s decision-making environment so that they’re subtly biased toward one decision over another. Businesses love it because they can quickly and cheaply attract more customers. And governments love it because they can encourage people to act in desirable ways without necessarily changing laws or restricting freedoms.
Nudges are now ubiquitous enough that you probably experience them all the time. For example, one common technique relates to social proof. When you visit a website to look for a product or service, you might notice a message that says something like “53 people are currently looking at this product!” or “16 people purchased this in the last week!”. These messages stimulate an urge to fit in and they instill a fear of missing out on what others are enjoying. They’re simple nudges based on the knowledge that social influence is powerful enough to drive people’s decision-making.
Surprisingly though, despite the widespread practice of nudging, the science on its effectiveness is still limited. Questions like “Does nudging work?” are too simplistic because there are so many different types of nudge. Some types are likely to work well while others aren’t, and it’s important to know which is which.
Any real attempt to understand the efficacy of nudging needs to break the concept down into more specific categories and analyze each of them individually. Thankfully, a new study has done exactly that.
How to influence decision-making
When you search through scientific literature, it’s easy to find individual studies to support practically any reasonable theory. This kind of cherry-picking is a problem because it can mislead you into thinking a particular idea is backed by solid evidence when it’s only backed by one outlier study. Ideally, you need to find a meta-analysis, which combines and analyzes all of the widespread evidence on a particular question to reach an overall conclusion.