We all know how companies and suchlike use various tactics in order to persuade the consumer to buy into their brand, but what is interesting is some of the more subtle methods that are used to influence the choices we make, while retaining our freedom of choice. This is known as a ‘nudge’. For example, by placing healthy food at eye level and unhealthy out of sigh in a school cafeteria can encourage children to make the healthier choice.

“People don’t always act rationally. In fact, they tend to act irrationally but in predictable ways.”  
Thaler and Sunstein

I recently read the book ‘Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness’  by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R Sunstein, which goes into depth about this concept known as ‘Nudge Theory’ so I decided to share a few key findings in my learnings of the power of a nudge. 

What is a nudge?

Nudges are all around us, influencing our everyday decisions often without us even realising. 

Nudges encourage positive behaviour by giving us that gentle push in the right direction, helping us make a better decision, however, there are opinions that nudges can be misused to tempt us to buy goods we don’t really need, which of course is possible.

Today, however, we are focusing on the nudges that encourage positive behaviour. Let’s take a look at some memorable examples of nudge theory at work in everyday design.

Nudges to add friction 

Square toilet paper by Shigeru Ban  

When it comes to user experience it needs an easy to use effortless experience, free from cognitive strain as we don’t enjoy friction! However, can friction be used to encourage positive behaviour? 

Shigeru Ban created the square toilet roll that creates friction as the roll rotates. In turn (pun intended) makes you more conscious of your usage and stops excessive rolling, resulting in saving paper.    

As the paper towel dispenser is slowly drained of its green paper towels, we see the greenness slowly drained out of South America, reflecting the environmental impact of disposable paper towels.

Choice Architecture

The design of how choices are presented to us is called choice architecture. If a choice architect wants to shift behaviour they do it with a nudge, making small changes to how choices are presented to us can have a massive impact on people's behaviour.  

For example, if a school wanted to increase consumption of healthy foods and decrease unhealthy ones, a simple change to the order in which the food is presented could nudge children into making a healthier choice. 

Another example of choice architecture would be if a hotel wants to decrease the frequency of towels being washed, it could place some signs in the bathroom. 

  • Please consider reusing your towels
  • Most guests reuse their towels, helping to save the environment

Which one would encourage you more? 

The second option emphasises that most other guests do so and triggers emotions by highlighting the benefit. People follow one another so it might be as simple as informing people about what other people are doing, this is known as social proof. 

Loss Aversion

People hate losing something, so naturally we experience the fear of loss. The idea of losing something makes you twice as miserable as gaining the same thing that makes you happy, this is called loss aversion. This is why services like Amazon Prime and Now TV etc give free trials, which then after the trial period has ended you are automatically signed up at the standard rate. A large percentage of people won’t want to give it up the service once they have it, therefore are less likely to cancel. You have been nudged into subscribing. 

When it comes to marketing messaging, often it’s really effective to flip the messaging by telling the consumer what they are losing if they don’t play ball, rather than just focussing on the benefits and what they gain if they do.

Similarly, we value extra quantity more than we do discount. Retailers can drive more activity by offering more, achieving a positive response, for example: 
Get 50% extra free of this pack of biscuits vs Get 33% off this pack of biscuits.

Which one do you prefer? 

Numerically they are the same deal (you’re still paying ⅔ of what you get), it’s just positioned differently. Think about when you’re at a supermarket and see a ‘3 for 2’ deal, this is a very effective nudge as we feel that we’re getting a good deal.

Price Anchoring

Have you ever had someone say “That’s expensive!” and wondered what they are comparing it to? Perhaps it’s expensive in comparison to a previous purchase or their expectation. Somewhere in their mind, they are comparing it to something, that would be the anchor. 

Things don’t really have a value until we give them a value. That's why when you see a product reduced you are presented with the before price crossed out, providing you with a comparison anchor, which gives the new price that added value.

Often services offer 3 price levels, budget, standard and premium. By offering the higher price point, this drives people to choose the 2nd option. The same reason why Starbucks added the Grande option, it increased the sales of their medium-sized coffee.


Sometimes nudge marketing is all about the language used and how we frame what we are saying, so for example you need a heart disease operation, now consider the following two sentences:

  • 90 out of 100 people are alive after 5 years
  • 10 out of 100 people are dead after 5 years
  • Which one do you feel more positive towards? 

Essentially, they are saying the same thing but if you are more likely to agree to that operation after hearing the first, more positive, sentence. 

Gamification Nudges

Adding an element of fun to any process makes for a better, more enjoyable experience. Gamification nudges can be applied to online and offline marketing, such as point scoring, leader boards, increasing difficulty levels and rewards. They encourage people’s behaviour to accomplish a goal, giving us a sense of achievement and reward. 

Underground stations in Stockholm and Hamburg wanted to encourage people to use the stairs over the escalator. One added a sensory experience to the stairs by turning them into fully working piano keys. While the other turned the stairs into a running track, although I’m not sure encouraging people to race up the stairs is the best of ideas! 

There was a problem with cigarette butts being dropped on the streets in London, so a gamification nudge was used to encourage smokers to dispose of their butts. A bin was created where smokers could vote for their best football player in the world, Ronaldo or Messi. 

A subtle use of a gamification nudge, where road users are presented with a green thumbs-up when they are travelling at a safe speed. 

Final Notes

So as a wrap-up, Nudges aim to: 

  • influence the choices we make, without taking away the power to choose
  • make the whole process of making the decision is easier
  • be transparent and never misleading
  • add an element of fun! 

With our love of behavioural science and focus on human motivations Nudges are really important to team Reflect Digital. We use nudge theory across our teams but most noticeably to help create stand out in the paid media channels and from a CRO perspective to help remove friction within a website journey. Everything needs to be considered in context though as in some scenarios we aim for friction as it helps to increase memorability and can be a real positive addition to a user journey. 

If you want to find out more about how we use nudge theory and how this might benefit your digital marketing strategy then please get in contact.


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