Nudge Plus: How behaviour change policies can build on their success by recognizing their failings

Hill and stokerPeter John and Gerry Stoker

Policies that promote behaviour change are not so controversial as we move towards the third decade of the twenty first century. The question that matters now is how to ensure that behaviour change policies work and match an increasingly assertive democratic culture among citizens. Our solution is to build on past successes and to move towards something we label “nudge plus”.

Success is the right word to describe the rise of behaviour change policy interventions. From virtually nowhere it has joined much more established go-to tools for government, such as regulation, financial incentives, and propaganda. And credit must go to pioneers like Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler. Since the publication of their book Nudge in 2008 , interventions inspired by its insights have become an established practice of governments across the globe.

Nudge is a short-hand for a family of light-touch behavioural public policy tools based on presenting options to citizens to encourage them to follow their long-term interests and to support collective goals. Commonly-adopted nudges include default options to favour citizens joining a pension scheme, changing the wording of a tax collecting letter so that the recipient experiences peer pressure to comply, and providing timely reminders to encourage attendance at medical appointments.

Many critics fear nudge is about cynical manipulation of citizens by governments, where so called-experts dream up what is supposed to be good for us and then sneakily get us to follow their commands. Despite the success of behaviour change policy, it has struggled to rid itself of having a slightly dodgy reputation. Why? The answer we offer is that it is partly the fault of the inventors Cass Sunstein and Richard Thaler.

These founding figures of nudge policy rested their approach on two claims, reflecting long-held understandings among experts in economics and welfare policy that the public needs to be helped to act in its best interests. First, they argued with ill-conceived glee that people can be ‘smart’ when they use their reflective system but are prone to being ‘dumb’ when they do not. Human fallibility is the launch pad to their second proposal that experts need to lead citizens down better paths by offering choices that are better for them. With only a little exaggeration we can summarize their position as: people tend to be stupid and that a paternalistic expert-led government needs to save them from themselves.

Put like that, you can easily see how nudge raised hackles among many observers. But our aim is not to demand you now join the list of outraged or disgusted in respect of nudge policy. Rather our point is that nudge should not and need not premise itself on either of the Thaler and Sunstein starting positions.

We suggest a fresh approach which is less focused on its fallibilities of human thinking and makes more of its possibilities. We need to avoid too sharp a divide between reflective and intuitive cognition because that fails to recognize that people regularly move between the two. Moreover, intuitive thinking is not always bad and is certainly not always dumb. In many circumstances its heuristics or rules-of-thumb dynamics work better than could be achieved through fuller, more extended reflection. We propose that the cognitive foundations of nudge recognize that citizens are not always cognitive misers but are also capable thinkers. Many effective nudges, whether they admit it or not, already work with citizen reflection and deliberation, and we propose building on and using that wider cognitive palate for policymakers approaching citizens.

Nudge emerged from welfare economics where experts use their smart thinking to save the world. We offer another model for tackling social problems that is more in tune with the idea of liberal and open democracies and a self-steering society. We need nudge policy to be developed where citizens, public officials, and experts work together to design better ways to tackle public problems.

We label this new approach ‘nudge plus’. A programme premised on giving citizens the space and capacity to make changes to their lives, and where government provides support not only through its behaviour change policies, but by combining citizens’ efforts with public infrastructure investment, regulation of the private sector and fairer taxation. Nudge plus could provide the key to unlocking the capacity to meet some of the great public policy crises of our generation: climate change, public health, and social care. All these policy areas require us to change our behaviour in a sustainable way, but they also demand that governments stop fudging or delaying, and act using the full powers of the state.

We identify seven examples of behavioural intervention in tune with nudge plus policy.

  1. Helping citizens understand their role

For example, SMS messages to outpatients in the health system that indicates the costs of missing an appointment has led to fewer people missing their appointments. This nudge is the activation of a norm of attendance. Entailed in the nudge is the need for the respondent to understand the argument that missed appointments cost money. Instead of treating citizens as dumb, help them to understand how the system works.

  1. Recognising that commitment is best seen as a reflective process

To make a commitment to change behaviour requires some degree of thought and understanding of what a commitment is about, and works much better than those interventions where citizens are tricked into making a promise.

  1. Let’s focus on aspiring not trickery

Another example of thought-provoking nudges is the work on aspirations to motivate people to make better choices. People need to ‘dream’ as they consider their futures.

  1. Personalisation: a route to reflective thinking

Personalising nudges is a route to thinking. An example is including someone’s name as part of a request. A nudge that addresses you directly is working on your automatic, fast-thinking reflex to pay attention, but then is inevitably getting someone to commit to some reflection and conscious thought.

  1. Giving space for reflective thinking

We are all busy and face many competing voices, so giving space for people to think can make a big difference. An evaluation of crime re-education policies in Chicago found a key intervention involved getting participants to play a simulation game, and enabled the young offenders to slow down and reflect on whether their established behaviour could be replaced with something more positive.

  1. Building resilience matters: human grit  

Behaviour change requires the development of an orientation akin to determination and playing for the long-term, what can be called grit. In studies of health, the message from advocates of grit is that individuals can consciously work at getting these advantages.

  1. Making it easier for citizens to exercise choice

Examples include simple rules of thumb to interpret financial investment decisions for retirement, or simple rules to follow for a diet. These interventions aim to extend the competences of lay people and experts alike by creating a different type of dialogue between them.

In summary, in this age of populism and a more assertive civic culture, we see a declining future for nudge intervention unless it mends its ways. The same lesson applies to other policy arenas. Experts need to get alongside citizens and see them not as cognitive misers but as potential investors in a shared dynamic of change.

You may read Peter John and Gerry Stoker’s original research in Policy & Politics

John, Peter & Stoker, Gerry (2019) Rethinking the role of experts and expertise in behavioural public policy, Policy & Politics, DOI:

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Matching policy tools and their targets: beyond nudges and utility maximisation in policy design

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