Nudge theory (or nudge) is a concept in behavioural science, political theory and economics which proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions to try to achieve non-forced compliance to influence the motives, incentives and decision making of groups and individuals. The claim is that nudges are at least as effective, if not more effective, than direct instruction, legislation, or enforcement. The concept has influenced British and American politicians. Several nudge units exist around the world at the federal level (UK, Germany, Japan and others) as well as at the international level (OECD, World Bank, UN).
Definition of a nudgeEdit
The first formulation of the term and associated principles was developed in cybernetics by James Wilk before 1995 and described by Brunel University academic D. J. Stewart as "the art of the nudge" (sometimes referred to as micronudges). It also drew on methodological influences from clinical psychotherapy tracing back to Gregory Bateson, including contributions from Milton Erickson, Watzlawick, Weakland and Fisch, and Bill O'Hanlon. In this variant, the nudge is a microtargetted design geared towards a specific group of people, irrespective of the scale of intended intervention.
In 2008, Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein's book Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth, and Happiness brought nudge theory to prominence. It also gained a following among US and UK politicians, in the private sector and in public health. The authors refer to influencing behaviour without coercion as libertarian paternalism and the influencers as choice architects. Thaler and Sunstein defined their concept as:
A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.
In this form, drawing on behavioral economics, the nudge is more generally applied to influence behaviour.
Application of theoryEdit
Notable applications of nudge theory include the formation of the British Behavioural Insights Team in 2010. It is often called the "Nudge Unit", at the British Cabinet Office, headed by David Halpern.
In Australia, the government of New South Wales established a Behavioural Insights community of practice.
Nudge theory has also been applied to business management and corporate culture, such as in relation to health, safety and environment (HSE) and human resources. Regarding its application to HSE, one of the primary goals of nudge is to achieve a "zero accident culture".
Leading Silicon Valley companies are forerunners in applying nudge theory in corporate setting. These companies are using nudges in various forms to increase productivity and happiness of employees. Recently, further companies are gaining interest in using what is called "nudge management" to improve the productivity of their white-collar workers.
There are now more than 80 countries in which behavioral insights are used.
Nudging has also been criticised. Tammy Boyce, from public health foundation The King's Fund, has said: "We need to move away from short-term, politically motivated initiatives such as the 'nudging people' idea, which are not based on any good evidence and don't help people make long-term behaviour changes."
Cass Sunstein has responded to critiques at length in his "The Ethics of Influence" making the case in favor of nudging against charges that nudges diminish autonomy, threaten dignity, violate liberties, or reduce welfare. Ethicists have debated this rigorously. These charges have been made by various participants in the debate from Bovens to Goodwin. Wilkinson for example charges nudges for being manipulative, while others such as Yeung question their scientific credibility.
Some, such as Hausman & Welch have inquired whether nudging should be permissible on grounds of (distributive) justice; Lepenies & Malecka  have questioned whether nudges are compatible with the rule of law. Similarly, legal scholars have discussed about the role of nudges and the law.
Other scholars have echoed similar concerns, particularly with regard to the need to better understand the psychological factors that predict long-term behavioral changes.
Nudge theory and similar policy frameworks have been criticized by some psychologists for failing to take into account the psychological determinants of the behaviours that they are trying to change, despite the ethical implications.
There exists an anticipation and, simultanously, implicit criticism of the nudge theory in works of Hungarian social psychologists who emphasize the active participation in the nudge of its target (Ferenc Merei, Laszlo Garai).
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- See: Dr. Jennifer Lunt and Malcolm Staves
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