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What are nudges and what are they used for?

If we were purely rational beings, as is often and erroneously believed, probably none of us would engage in extreme sports, smoke or drink alcohol: when faced with every choice, we would spend hours carefully assessing the best option, the most advantageous and least risky.

But we know perfectly well that this is not the case. Human beings are, first and foremost, “emotional machines that think”, to quote acclaimed Portuguese neuroscientist Antonio Damasio: people make decisions and perform actions driven primarily by their instinct, their feelings and their emotional experience.


This makes it clear that our judgement does not always direct us towards the best choice for us. But there is a way to steer people’s choices towards the most beneficial options for them: in order to make better decisions for their own well-being, for society and for the planet, behavioural science has devised nudges, prompts, which, without imposition, try to change the world for the better, one little choice at a time.


What are nudges and how do they work?

Resisting temptation, moderating our reactions and weighing up every decision rationally is anything but simple: our nature compels us to decide first and foremost with our heart or, as we often say, “from the gut”. It is, however, possible to intervene to encourage a better choice than the one we would instinctively make: this is achieved using tools defined by behavioural science as nudges.

Theorised by Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein, nudges are interventions by corporations, brands and companies to “alter people’s behaviour in a predictable way, without forbidding other options and without significantly changing their economic incentives”. They are not orders or impositions, but dynamics of choice that reward certain choices or behaviours and make them more accessible.

Who creates nudges?

Behavioural science refers to those who manage to use these tools to positively influence people’s decisions as “architects”. Architects of choice usually have a good knowledge of people’s psychology and behaviour, which is why they are able to intervene in the decision-making process to encourage better choices for the individual.

Who uses nudges?

The intervention of these specialists may be requested by governments, companies or brands intent on eliciting or promoting specific responses, usually aimed at improving people’s quality of life. Of course, architects of choice are much more likely to be called upon to address complex issues or to facilitate decisions that people struggle to make effectively without outside help.

This is because the reptilian brain, which hosts the ability to assimilate an action and turn it into a habit, is clearly more inclined to metabolise, learn and effortlessly perform simple actions and not those that are more difficult and intricate, precisely because they are complex: more time and, if possible, assistance is needed.


Of course, in order to influence the decision-making process and foster better habits and behaviours, those actions that nudges favour need to be welcomed and seconded by people without friction: this only happens if the nudges are properly reinforced and accompanied by appropriate persuasive messages.

An example of nudges in action

An example of an effective and brilliant nudge has to do with a fly, Amsterdam airport and public toilets.

The Dutch capital’s Schiphol Airport has gone down in history for the way it solved the long-standing problem of urination outside the urinals in its men’s public toilets using nudges, suggesting a specific behaviour to users. How?


By simply carving a fly into the urinals, to make sure that travellers used the facilities more precisely, reducing urination outside the urinals by as much as 80%. A very simple nudge, but one that has had enormous benefits for the airport and its users: airport users have been able to enjoy generally cleaner and better-smelling toilets, the airport itself has reduced the costs of cleaning and maintaining these spaces and, consequently, the harmful consequences of detergents and cleaning agents on the environment.

All with minimal intervention in terms of costs and implementation. Amazing, right?