The Nudge Theory – Good or Bad?

One of our most recent topics of study in university lectures has been the nudge theory. This is a theory that suggests positive reinforcement and and indirect suggestions can cause people to change their behaviour, whilst thinking it was a decision they had made for themselves.

“The belief that people are more likely to change their behaviour for the better if they are gently encouraged to do so instead of using any force” – Collins Dictionary

The fact that people change their behaviour to suit the wants of the company could quite fairly be deemed unethical, however as the nudge theory suggests behavioural change rather than enforcing it, others argue the audience is making the decision themselves and acting freely. 

Let’s take a classic example I have seen used in many explanations, a school cafeteria. Quite simply the school nudges students towards making healthier lunch choices by placing healthy food at eye-level, displayed in an attractive and welcoming way. Unhealthy food is not at eye-level displayed and in a less welcoming fashion. 


Is the school forcing you to make the healthy choice? No. Is the strong suggestion there? Yes. Are the pupils making a completely free decision? There lies the question. 

Personally, I think that the nudge theory cannot have hard and fast rules placed upon it as to whether it is good or bad. It’s not a black and white issue. 

Encouraging children to choose healthier snacks is undisputeably a good thing, but not all cases of the nudge theory being used have an answer as clear.

In some cases it is ethically or morally wrong to change people’s behaviour without them noticing – a form of brain washing if you like. But I would hope that those that implement it have good personal and business morals and only use the tactic in those situations, such as the above example, that are undeniably good. 

What are your thoughts on the theory? Please share your them and any examples in the comments. 

Until next time…

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2 thoughts on “The Nudge Theory – Good or Bad?

  1. Tom Delmonte says:

    From my standpoint it is a matter of ethics and intent.
    If the person interested in encouraging the change has the best results for those the change is directed to and is open to change themselves then you have a good system in place and the Nudge Theory, or any Change Management process that incorporates that is acceptable.

    On the other hand if the change being proposed, even if it is good by itself, but the context is one that the person proposing it is doing it for selfish gains then it is not appropriate.

    I would strongly encourage you to find organizations who’s ethics are good, even if yours are still being developed. The consistency in behavior of an ethical organization makes it much easier to know how to communicate.


    • ariannewills says:

      I agree Tom, ethics plays a huge part in this, which is why I think it’s difficult to make a decision either way. You make some great points there, there’s a lot to think about with this!


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