Nudge: the tiny changes that make a big impact


Whilst on my commute to the office yesterday, I looked down at a road in Glasgow and was reminded of a book I had read several years ago. The book was called ‘Nudge’ and was authored by Thaler & Sunstein. You can find it on Amazon here.

In the book, the Nobel Prize winning researchers explore the concept of ‘nudges’, or how the act of making small changes in an environment can have a profound impact on how people behave.

Something as mundane as a road is a perfect example of how nudges in an environment can have a profound impact on how traffic flows, and has quite literally saved lives in the process.

Cast your mind back to the early 20th century, if you can, when roads were a fairly novel invention. Back then roads were often a mass of stone or tar, with little road markings available. That begs the question: how did the initial adopters of automobiles understand where to drive? Which lane to use? This of course assumes that they even knew what a lane was.

Enter road markings. In 1918, road markings were first introduced in the United Kingdom in an effort to reduce automobile collisions. Now, drivers would have a visual cue that ‘nudges’ them to stay in lane, as opposed to veering all over the road.

This is a perfect example of nudging in action. Perhaps without realising the impact of this simple change in the environment, the UK government had introduced arguably one of the first mainstream implementations of nudge psychology. 

In this insights article, we’ll be exploring the history, research, and impact nudging has had on a range of fields, and how we can employ the principles of ‘nudging’ to our digital marketing strategies. 

What is a nudge?

"A nudge is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people's behaviour in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives. To count as a mere nudge, the incentive must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates."

Put simply, a nudge is a small change in an environment that can have a measurable, direct impact on human behaviour without the need to ‘force’ or mandate something.

Putting fruit in a fruit store at eye level counts as a nudge, but instructing everyone that they must eat food doesn’t count as a nudge. Painting white lines in the center of a road also counts as a nudge.

As is highlighted in the book, a wonderful example of nudging can be found in Amsterdam’s airport. Disgruntled by the amount of cleaning time was dedicated to mopping up spillage at the men’s urinals, the airport’s administrators thought of a genius ‘nudge’ that drastically reduced spillages.

They simply painted a fly in the middle of each urinal. Now, the men using the restroom would have something to aim at! Clever. 

There are plenty of examples of nudging in action, far too many to discuss in this short article, but by now you should get the point: every detail matters. Even small changes in an environment can have a profound impact on how humans behave.

How can I employ nudging in my digital marketing strategy?

Now that we understand what a nudge is, there are several techniques that we should consider when trying to adopt this fascinating concept in our digital marketing strategies. There are several principles that contribute to a successful nudge, but in the interests of keeping this introduction to nudging as short as possible, we’ve narrowed it down to three. 

Choice Architecture

The most logical place to start is with choice architecture. Put simply, choice architecture involves mapping out what choices an individual in a process must make before reaching an intended goal. If we can have control over what choices a subject is allowed to make, we can have much more control over the choice they make. 

For a host of reasons, people have a tendency to go with the status-quo, and make the same choices that other people are making. Remember also that choosers are human, so make life easy for people. Reduce the amount of choices that are available, and make the choice as easy as possible to follow through. 


The book illustrates a perfect example of anchoring in action. Suppose you want to know the population of Edinburgh, Scotland’s second largest city, and you already know the population of Glasgow. A good place to start would be to ‘anchor’ your guess against the population of Glasgow, some 800,000 people. You can then guague a fairly rough estimate as to what the population of Edinburgh would be.

This is a prime example of anchoring: the act of associating something with a schema that your target audience is already familiar with. A perfect example of this in practice would be through the use of Jakob’s law, as we outline in this insights article. 


There exists a logical fallacy called the availability heuristic. Put simply, people associate emotions or opinions on any given subject by the ease of which they can summon information to their mind. How accessible information is to someone is therefore one of the key components of nudging. 

In the aftermath of an earthquake, purchases of earthquake insurance policies soars. After 9/11, flight sales fell off a cliff, and motoring accidents increased. Such is the nature and prominence of the availability heuristic, and the often illogical behaviour of humans.


In this insights article, we’ve explored the psychology behind nudging, with a few quick tips on how you can employ it within your digital marketing strategies. We hope you enjoy the subject of nudging as much as we do. Once you learn about nudging, you can’t stop noticing it around you. From the markings on the road to the wording of your tax reminders, nudges are being employed everywhere, by governments, businesses, charities, parents, and individuals.

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