What is Nudge Theory?

What is Nudge Theory?

Have you ever been nudged into making decisions before? More likely than not, whether you have noticed it or not, you have been nudged into making certain choices over others. Nudging for good, helps us break bad habits, and build new ones. Nudging can be applied to all behavioral changes. Read on to learn nudging principles and how we can use nudging for self-improvement.

Have you been nudged to tip at a coffee shop?

Picture yourself walking into your favorite coffee shop for your daily iced vanilla latte or flat white, as you reach the counter you see two tip jars at the counter. One jar is labeled“dogs” and the other is labeled “cats”, with a cute picture of the animals on the jar. You noticed one tip jar is filling up faster than the other. Would you put some money in one of the jars? If you said yes, you have been nudged into tipping by the café owners.

Nudging, aka Choice Architecture

Nudge Theory6, also known as choice architecture7, centers on the idea of reshaping the environment and the choices which are available in it, to influence people into making one choice over another.

The concept was coined and popularized by Thaler’s book:‘Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness’.

We often operate instinctively rather than rationally

The design of these choices is based on how we think instinctively, and not rationally. Our brains like to take short cuts, or heuristics, when we are faced with making decisions. While we resume the right and freedom to make these decisions, some options become more attractive than others.

How does changing the environment nudge us?  

Going back to the coffee shop, the default outcome of customers buying a to-go coffee is to not tip. However, by changing the environment at the counter, i.e. adding small nudges with the animal-labeled tip jars, customers are being encouraged to perform the behavior of “tipping” over the default of “not tipping”.

What is Nudge Theory?

Creating competition: Dogs vs Cats?

This is done by creating a competitive environment3. Putting “team dogs” against “team cats” customers, externally motivates customers to tip.

Customers (particularly pet owners) tend to feel a sense of ownership over dogs or cats, whom now have a stake in the situation, which motivates them to “play for their team”. Utilizing behavioral science knowledge on loss aversion5, we can predict that the majority of people prefer winning, even if its small competitions, when we create a sense of agency and give people the power to control the outcome.

Infinite choices: France vs Argentina? iOS vs Android? StarWars vs Star Trek?

Imagine this during the World CupFinal, the tip jars at Sports Bars would do exceedingly well if they had jars of France against Argentina. This is predictable when our social identities8 are involved in decision making.

Bottomline is, we can change the environment of our situation, to nudge us to make a favorable behavior over another, and the list of creating such changes is infinite.

Nudging for good

Nudges are cost-effective way induce positive behavioral change with immediate effects. Beyond commercial settings, Nudging is increasingly used to create positive behavioral changes.

Nudging for sustainability or “green habits”

The UN has put in place Green Nudges9 in schools and universities to promote sustainable behavior on campuses, including initiatives to sort and recycle the right garbage, encouraging biking to campus, increasing consumption of sustainable plant-based food options etc.

What is Nudge Theory?

Are there other nudging principles?

Creating competition is only one of many ways to nudge people. Some other nudging principles included making an option the default1 and therefore the easiest option, using frictions4 (barriers) to reinforce positive actions and discourage negative ones, or making the better option more accessible2.

Eating healthier with nudging

Tip for any health conscious readers at home placing healthier food choices such as fruits and vegetables on your desk makes it less likely for you to reach for the unhealthier snack options like chips and sweets in the kitchen, distance creates inaccessibility.

Nudging for your mental health?

At Waitasec, we make use of digital nudges, to help you build positive digital habits.

By adding friction to the digital environment, we help you break up your flow of infinite scrolling. First, you set up the amount of time you want to spend on any phone application, that could be Instagram, Tinder or TikTok.

When the time is up, Waitasec nudges you away from those applications, acting as the friction (interruption),bringing your awareness to the present and facilitates conscious phone use.

You can now make another choice, to go back to the previous application and spend more time on them; or practice mindful phone use with Waitasec’s alternatives – mindfulness practices, productivity tips, cognitive function boosting games and more.

Driven by behavioral science, Waitasec uses Nudges for good, to help you regain control over your phone use, build better digital habits, and improve your mental health.


  1. Hansen, P. G., Schilling, M., & Malthesen, M. S. (2021).  Nudging healthy and sustainable food choices: three randomized controlled field experiments using a vegetarian lunch-default as a normative signal.  Journal of Public Health, 43(2), 392-397.
  2. Knowles, D., Brown, K., & Aldrovandi, S. (2020). Exploring the roles of physical effort and visual salience within the proximity effect. Appetite, 145, 104489.
  3. Klege, R. A., Visser, M., Datta, S., & Darling, M. (2022). The power of nudging: Using feedback, competition, and responsibility assignment to save electricity in a non-residential setting. Environmental and Resource Economics, 1-17.
  4. Naiseh, M., Al-Mansoori, R. S., Al-Thani, D., Jiang, N., & Ali, R. (2021, October). Nudging through Friction: an Approach for Calibrating Trust in Explainable AI. In 2021 8th International Conference on Behavioral and Social Computing (BESC) (pp. 1-5). IEEE.
  5. Novemsky, N., & Kahneman, D. (2005). The boundaries of loss aversion. Journal of Marketing research, 42(2), 119-128.
  6. Thaler, R. H. (2018). From cashews to nudges: The evolution of behavioral economics. American Economic Review, 108(6), 1265-87.
  7. Thaler, R. H., Sunstein, C. R., & Balz, J. P. (2013). Choice architecture (Vol. 2013). Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press.
  8. Thomas, W. E., Brown, R., Easterbrook, M. J., Vignoles, V. L.,  Manzi, C., D’Angelo, C., & Holt, J. J. (2017). Social identification in sports teams: The role of personal, social, and collective identity motives. Personality and Social Psychology Bulletin, 43(4), 508-523.
  9. United Nations Environment Programme, GRID- Arendal and Behavioural Insights Team (2020). The Little Book of Green Nudges: 40 Nudges to Spark Sustainable Behaviour on Campus. Nairobi and Arendal: UNEP and GRID-Arendal. Illustrations and icons by Studio Atlantis.

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