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On Nudging and manipulation

Greedy marketers, politicians, well-intended individuals who say they want the best for us, they’re all trying to influence us without our noticing it.

And in the last decade manipulation has become easier, thanks to data access and research by social psychologists and economists on how we make decisions and how we can be influenced. You may have heard of “nudging.”

Nudging is an attempt to influence people’s decisions based on knowledge about our cognitive biases, for example that our rational mind is slower than our intuitive mind.

When Thaler and Sunstein coined the term in 2008 the concept of nudging was already popular thanks to the work of Kahneman, who had researched the concept of the slow and the fast mind and published his book Thinking, Fast and Slow.

His work ignited an explosion in the field of behavioural economics and experts in that area started to proliferate, some moving from academia to advise companies how to trigger the emotions that prompt people to buy.

And that’s why the work of some of these experts in behavioural economics worries me. Are they actively manipulating us?

Behavioural economics and social psychology have extensively researched the long list of human cognitive biases, the mental shortcuts we take with every decision we make. Based on their research policymakers, marketers, companies and organisations seek ways of using our cognitive biases to influence our decisions through nudging.

What people don’t like about nudging is that it’s manipulative.

For example, placing apples at eye level in a cafeteria and chocolate bars on a lower shelf is nudging. In this way the university or your employer is encouraging healthy eating habits. You might have recognised similar practices in the supermarket, where certain products are strategically placed to look more appealing than others, like displaying sweets by the till at the eye level of small children, to the despair of all parents shopping with hungry kids.

Nudging involves an interesting conflict:

– Should we support people’s freedom to do what they want such as eating as much chocolate as they like? – Or should we be paternalistic and help them make decisions that aren’t immediately attractive but are necessary if, let’s say, they want to be healthy?

Some experts say nudging is not manipulative because at the end of the day it doesn’t restrict our freedom to choose – we can still pick the chocolate. But nudging interferes with our autonomy, as it aims to influence our decision-making process as an autonomous person.

The problem with nudging is that it’s done covertly. We aren’t told that we’re being influenced.

Thaler and Sunstein say nudging should be visible, scrutinised and monitored. But this doesn’t solve the problem, because nudging aims to make a person do something that she or he hasn’t actively chosen to do.

We might think nudging isn’t such a bad idea if it’s about public health and promoting healthy eating options, but what happens when a company nudges us to buy new products, or when it’s done to influence our vote? Who decides what’s good and what’s bad for us?

The problem with nudging and other practices such as online manipulation is that we are getting used to it. As citizens we expect governments, companies and businesses to try to trick us into doing things we don’t necessarily want to do.

These practices undermine public trust, promote conspiracy theories of all kinds and support the spread of fake news fuelled by the idea that governments and companies are manipulating us.

And that brings me to the question of whether we should be using nudging in our own organisation or business to try to influence our customers and co-workers.

We all use nudging in one way or another when we try to eliminate people’s friction to signing up to our blog, or to create a better experience for our customers. But we’re talking about something else here. We’re talking about moving from “let’s make it easy for people to buy” to “let’s see how we can influence them to do something they wouldn’t otherwise consider.” Or, as some experts are putting it, “working against resistance to change.”

My objection to nudging is not just that it’s manipulative, but most of all that it’s lazy!

When jumping into nudging I’m not taking the time to try to understand why people eat more chocolate than apples – whether it’s because apples are as expensive as chocolate in the cafeteria or they’re so tired-looking you wouldn’t eat them even if they were giving them away.

Can we spend some time trying to see what the problem is here? Can we try to connect with how it feels from the point of view of the person making the decision?

Science and technology are going to offer us many shortcuts in the future. Some of these might question our ethical approach to decision-making, but the problem still remains how much we value curiosity, empathy, awareness and observation.

People are complex and amazing, and theories about cognitive bias are not infallible. You’ll always find people like my daughter who’ll crawl under a shelf to grab a bar of chocolate.

Influencing, understanding and connecting with others is beautiful work that the experts can’t take away from us. When we lose the ability to observe, we’re giving away our power and the possibility of finding a valuable connection with our customers and our team that can make our work remarkable.


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