Nudge of the Month

Nudging art lovers to contribute to the cultural economy

By Giovanna Mazzeo Ortolani

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Recent events around the world show the potential damages to non-profit organizations or public institutions which face revenue uncertainties, usually due to funding cuts during economic slowdowns.

At the beginning of September, a fire burned down Brazil’s National Museum in Rio de Janeiro, a 200-year-old institution whose collection used to contain, among other preciosities, the oldest human fossil ever found in the country. Not only was its repository lost, but also a part of Brazil’s memories and national identity. The main explanation behind the accident is that the institution did not have a protection against fires due to consecutive cuts in its budgets, despite the billions of reals funneled towards the 2014 World Cup and 2015 Olympics. Although this is an ultimate consequence of restrained budgets, there is a common understanding that culture and arts are not perceived as top priorities in national investment. What can be done to remediate this?

Private donations are a common supplementary source of revenues to exhibitions, but the search for donors is a pursuit on its own. One possibility is to explore the psychological characteristics of prospective donors. For instance, nudges can be used to induce loss aversion through a hypothetical scenario of missing existing exhibitions instead of emphasizing the possibility of attending additional ones.

The maximization of private donations is challenging and has been approached by different researchers. Kotler and Scheff (1997) believe that factors influencing market segmentation are fundamental to effectively reach potential donors (e.g. differing their interests, attitudes and motivation). Bennett (2003) emphasizes the importance of a connection between donors’ personal values and those of the organization in order to stimulate willingness to donate, while Guest (2002) remarks the influence of emotional response or aesthetic appeal for arts organizations.

Lee, Fraser and Fillis (2017) investigate how it is possible to nudge visitors of a major visual arts gallery in Scotland to increase private donations to a specific exhibition. Using a contingent valuation method to estimate the value attributed to art by individuals, the authors assume that loss aversion affects willingness to donate. Three different scenarios are proposed to individuals, who have to precise how much they would like to donate under each case, i.e. a voluntary price discrimination on donations:

  1. Unframed: assesses the current utility position of visitors (control group)

Q: “This exhibition is the only exhibition showcasing the artworks of Scotland’s emerging talent. Supposing that the gallery was raising funds for the exhibition, how much would you be willing to donate?”

  1. Gain-framed: elicits visitors’ willingness to donate so as to enjoy an additional similar event (first treatment group)

Q: “Supposing that the gallery is raising funds to provide another platform similar to the exhibition for emerging artists within Scotland, how much would you be willing to donate?”

  1. Loss-framed (second treatment group)

Q: “Supposing that the gallery was in a position where it had to discontinue the exhibition because of financial constraints, how much would you be willing to donate in order for the gallery to be able to continue with the exhibition?”

They found that non-frequent gallery-goers allocated to the gain-framed scenario are willing to donate more than those allocated to the unframed scenario. However, frequent gallery-goers are more prone to donate under the loss-framed scenario, as the social value attributed to the exposition experience is significantly correlated with their willingness to donate.

Therefore, there is a potential to nudge art lovers to contribute with private donations to stimulate the cultural economy. Alternatively, other strategies have also been proven effective to increase charitable giving, such as drawing on peer effects (as presented in this NOTM article), default options to increase membership levels, and personalized messages to communicate with future donors.



Behavioural Insights Team (2010). Applying behavioural insights to charitable giving.

Bennett, R. (2003). Factors underlying the inclination to donate to particular types of charity. International Journal of Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Marketing, 8, 12-29.

Guest, S. (2002). The value of art. Art, Antiquity and Law, 7, 305-316.

Kotler, P. & Scheff, J. (1997). Standing room only: Strategies for marketing the performing arts. Boston, MA: Harvard Business School Press.

Lee, Boram, Ian Fraser and Ian Fillis (2017). Nudging Art Lovers to Donate. Nonprofit and Voluntary Sector Quarterly, 46(4): 837-858.

Thompson, E., Berger, M., Blomquist, G. & Allen, S. (2002). Valuing the arts: a contingent valuation approach. Journal of Cultural Economics, 26, 87-113.

Nudge of the Month

Do not bite off more than you can chew

By Martina Barjaková


Have you ever been on holidays in a 4- or 5-star hotel, with an all inclusive buffet? Do you remember the huge variety (and amounts) of food served there? It was probably very hard to choose from. So it may have happened that you wanted to try a bit of so many things that you ended up with a table full of food that you could never finish. And of course, the rest of your dinner ended up in a trash bin.

This is not an unrealistic scenario. According to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO) of the United Nations, one third of the food (corresponding to roughly 1.3 billion tonnes!) produced each year gets wasted. Only with the food wasted yearly in Europe, 200 million people could be fed. On the individual level, each person in Europe or North America wastes 95-115 kg of food per year.

Hopefully these figures are enough to say that we (humanity) have a huge problem here that we should really try to solve. And as usually happens to be the case in our (B.BIAS) articles, we argue that behavioural science may help also with this issue. Often, our eating habits are quite automatic and therefore could be changed with some clever nudges.

Taking less food in buffet restaurants/canteens

As the example at the beginning of the article illustrates, many times we waste food by taking too much of it. We eat with our eyes first.

A study conducted in more than 50 hotels in Scandinavia tried a simple nudge – telling people in a salient way that instead of taking a lot of food at once, they can visit the buffet as many times as they wish. This resulted in 20 % drop in the food wasted.

1_4yVLJUmI8Mw1d6cn-9vyXgThe same study tried another approach – simply decreasing the plate size – and found that reduction of the size of 1 cm resulted in 2.5 kg reduction in food waste (over 7 %). Another team of researchers tried this strategy with a sample of businessmen in Denmark and also found a significant result – 3 cm reduction in plate size led to 26 % reduction in food waste.

Another strategy, this time created by one of the winning teams of the Nudge Challenge 2017 (a student contest organised by Nudge France), used salience to inform people about how much food is being thrown away in the school canteen. They put up posters around the canteen saying how many kg of food (and how many entire meals) were wasted the previous day. This led to a decrease of more than 40 % in food wasted in just two days.

Taking food home from restaurants

Sometimes it is not up to us to choose the amount of food to be eaten, e.g. when we eat out in restaurants. Can something be done to reduce food waste in such settings?

Probably the best option is to pack the remaining food for guests to eat at home. However, in many countries asking for a “foodie bag” (doggy bag) is not the norm and people may not feel comfortable doing it.

Il-nudge-contro-lo-spreco-alimentare-la-psicologia-al-servizio-del-benessere-sociale-IMM-1.jpgNudge Italia came up with a nudge to make taking food home a default. In front of each diner in a pizzeria, they put a poker-like token, coloured green on the top and red on the bottom. On each table, there was a leaflet with the caption “I DON´T WASTE” (“#IONONSPRECO” in original) explaining the meaning of the token – turned on the green side it means the remaining food will be automatically packed to be taken home. In case one does not wish to get the doggy bag, they need to turn the token to the red side. And the result? Normally only around 40 % of customers would request the doggy bag, while after the implementation of the nudge, it was 85 % of diners.

A similar idea has been tested in a restaurant in Thessaloniki by the Nudge Unit Greece, though they used only flyers distributed on the tables, raising awareness about the food waste and making salient the availability of the foodie bags. This strategy produced a 10 % increase in the demand of these bags.

Buying less food in supermarkets – something we should think about as well

It would probably be unfair to blame only restaurants, hotels or canteens for all the food waste produced. Households may also contribute to it, by buying more food than can be consumed before it gets rotten or past the expiry date.

However, this seems to be an issue that behavioural science has not tried to solve yet. Can you think of any ways of nudging people to make better (in terms of quantity) food purchasing decisions? Let us know in the comments, we will be happy to discuss with you!


Nudge of the Month

We need to drink more! …Water

By Martina Barjaková

Summer has officially started in the northern hemisphere and with it, the eternal problem of people not drinking enough water has become urgent to solve once again.

We all know drinking water is important for our bodies. And yet, we often fail to drink enough of it. Not because we do not want to, we simply forget.

So, what to do with this problem? Can behavioural science also help in this setting and provide some useful tools to remind us to drink more?

One day I was at my grandma´s and saw a huge glass full of water on her table. She told me she would always fill it in the morning and try to finish it by the end of the day. She also told me that without having it on the table, she would just forget about drinking water. In other words, she invented a very simple nudge for herself. Many of you can probably relate to this problem and have come up with such simple ideas yourselves.

However, there exist many more sophisticated nudges that have been applied in various settings.

Smart bottles and other technologies


We live in a world full of new technologies. And yes, the technological development concerns also water bottles. Nowadays there are several companies that produce so called “smart bottles”, which are designed as to remind us to drink water. Companies like Briefcase or Hidrate Spark developed bottles with microchips built in the caps or with LEDs, which allow them to start beeping or glowing if they have not been opened for a certain amount of time and so work as a reminder to the user that it is time to drink.

But many producers go even further, producing bottles that can be connected to mobile apps or wearables, such as Fitbit or Apple Watch, to allow you to track your water consumption together with other measures. Examples of such bottles are H20Pal, Ozmo Active Smart Bottle or Hidrate Spark 2.0.

If you do not want to invest in a smart bottle, you can just buy a gadget, such as Ulla, to be stuck on your normal bottle and to give you glowing reminders to drink. Or you can simply install a mobile app, such as Hydro Coach, Daily Water or Waterlogged, which will remind you to drink and will monitor your water consumption.

Drinking water while drinking alcohol


Apart from drinking water in general, it is especially important to do so on a night out – in between alcoholic drinks. However, as was the case before, people often forget about this. The famous beer producer Heineken decided to design an intervention to solve this problem. During the campaign called “This one is on us” they would automatically provide a plastic cup together with their bottled beer and they would install beer-style taps in the bars, from which people could tap water in their cups for free. In this way, they made water drinking easier, more fun (arguing that everyone likes using the tap) and made the problem more salient in people´s minds. And Heineken was one of the winners of the Brands Nudging for Good 2017 contest thanks to this intervention!  

Drinking water as a public policy

Until now, we saw nudges that people can implement themselves and a nudge created by a private company. But drinking water is an issue tackled also by policy-makers, as they are interested in their citizens´ health and well-being as well.  waterfountainbottleIn Melbourne, Australia, the local authorities decided to install around 60 water fountains all around the city to make it easier for people to drink water when they are not at home. The placement of the fountains has been thought through carefully and they were installed in places with a high frequency of pedestrian traffic or in places where people usually do some physical activity.


To sum it up, it seems that behavioural science together with new technologies is making our lives easier once again. So, install your drinking app or buy a smart bottle and enjoy your summer without dehydration!


Nudge of the Month

Summer holidays are coming (but not for all of us)

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate



June has come and, for the majority of college and university students, this means free time that can be spent with families and friends, while being on holidays without studying.

Nevertheless, some of them who failed or postponed exams may be worried about their upcoming outcomes, while others may be confused whether they are ready or not to begin university life after the college experience.

Different nudges have been developed with the aim of improving students’ grades and likelihood of applying to universities. All of them are principally based on text messages, a cost-effective instrument that allows schools and institutions to plan and implement interventions. Following, some examples of the different forms that such an easy nudge can take.

Motivational SMS

An experiment conducted by the Behavioural Insight Team (UK) showed that students receiving motivational text messages were more likely to pass exams (English and Maths in the example) than companions. Students nominated a “study supporter” (e.g. a family member) that rece

ived the text messages and was encouraged to send a motivational message to revise to the students. Results showed that both attendance and possibility to pass rose dramatically. This exemplifies the possibilities of leveraging the pressure in form of encouragement coming from families and friends to keep students motivated in their tasks.

Furthermore, in Middlesex Community College (CT) and similarly in Ohio University, SMS-based nudging is used to help incoming students to stay motivated and to clearly define their goal-setting strategy and the when and how for achieving their long term goals through a personalized system.

SMS for social norms

Text messages have the power to leverage on social norms and to diffuse good behaviours that should be shared all across the students’ community. First-generation students can be helped appreciating the increased level of independence, the possibility of working in teams and of sharing passions and experiences with other students, feeling engaged in the community and reducing the feeling of loneliness, or reducing the fear of going to talk to professors and tutors (e.g “Most students who visit the tutoring center earn As and Bs. Will you commit to visiting this week?”)

SMS to reduce dropouts

Studies suggest that about 20% to 30% of low-income students in urban districts admitted to educational institutes decided not to enrol. 


SMS may help to connect the intentions of these students to their actions: texts may remind about tasks that must be completed to be enrolled, and encourage to ask for assistance for more complex tasks (e.g. tuition payments). The intervention in Lawrence and Springfield, MA, showed an increase in the likelihood of enrolment of 10%.

Therefore, to whom is always concerned that the widespread use of smartphone is killing students abilities to study and learn, it is now possible to respond that, sometimes, even a single SMS can make a big difference for students to reach their goals.




Nudge of the Month

I want to save the planet…tomorrow!

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate

The problem of climate change is one of the richest and most complex issues to hit communication channels nowadays: news regarding global warming, overpopulation, melting of glaciers, greenhouse effect, protection of endangered species, desertification, pollution in all its forms are heard on TV, newspapers, and social media on a daily basis.

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Together with climate change awareness, also the consciousness of the key role of human activities is growing: a survey conducted in April 2018 by the leading company for global market and opinion research Ipsos states that half of the Americans acknowledge the fact that humans themselves are causing this already well known climate change. Still, “most Americans are not willing to make changes to their personal behaviours to help limit climate change”, the survey further reveals. How come such a big contradiction exist in the human minds?

Actually, this phenomenon does not come as big news. The same failure in sticking to plans and good resolutions has already been investigated in contexts such as  gym attendance, savings, or voting. In psychological terms, it is possible to speak of an actual “intention-action gap”: a human inability to stick to good intentions that is both physiological and contextual. This happens mainly because, even with a good environmental awareness, most of our anti-ecological habits are very ingrained and difficult to change from a rational perspective.  

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Of course, it is here that green nudges can intervene. According to a report from COWI A/S (an engineering and environmental science Danish consulting firm), green nudges can be classified into four different categories: provision of information, changes in the physical environment, changes in the default option, social norms and regular feedback. Some examples of how these different kinds of nudge work follow.

  1. Provision of information

According to the EU legislation, consumers should be able to choose between electrical appliances in the most transparent way possible: that’s why today energy labels report energy use in kWh per year. Despite this intervention, few of us really know what it means in monetary terms, and how this will impact on our bills. With this in mind, in 2014, the UK Department of Energy and Climate Change in partnership with the Behavioural Insights Team and John Lewis conducted a field study. They came up with the expected results: providing information on the electricity lifetime running costs of a certain electrical appliance, consumers are unconsciously driven to buy more energy-efficient appliances.

  1. Changing the physical environment

In many areas of Africa, drinking water without having previously purified it is a dangerous behaviour that can have serious consequences, as water-borne diseases create health issues for local populations and can be sometimes lethal. In Kibera (Kenya), researchers were not able to understand why the demand for the chlorine solution used for purification was so low, even if discount coupons were offered to incentivize its consumption. In reality, villagers had to walk every day to water sources, and were expected to do an extra trip to the nearest shop to buy the chlorine solution. As people prefer to save energy, very few of them were willing to do the extra effort. Only positioning chlorine solution containers next to the water source, researchers were able to change the behavior of locals and of their neighbours.

  1. Default options

In most of our previous articles we have discussed the power of default options. This is probably the most powerful nudge intervention. Examples include setting printers to print double-sided by default, sending to customers mails instead of paper bills or providing to the new ones green energy plans as a default option. One case that has been analysed extensively is the impact of the default option as a way to reduce meat consumption. Meat is considered one of the main causes of food-related greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions, and reducing it from our meals is a great way to mitigate its production effects. Researchers tried, for instance, to influence food choice in campus dining halls presenting a meat-free menu as default. Results showed that this intervention significantly increased the probability for students to choose a meat-free meal option, facilitating pro-environmental behaviours.

  1. Social norms and regular feedback

Social norms can be considered the accepted guidelines of behavior of social groups, and can be leveraged in a smart way to arrange effective nudges. In this way, it is possible to spread pro-environmental social norms and unconsciously influence behaviour on a large scale. The main example can be found once again in the realm of energy bills. In two studies, approximately 200,000 households received periodic peer feedback reports on consumption. Every household was compared to the average consumption of similar households  in terms of family dimension and location, and was provided targeted energy efficiency advice to achieve “the average”. This system is shown to produce significant results, and it can be easily scalable through e-mails or social media. Nevertheless, it presents also weaknesses: below-average consumers may increase energy consumption causing a boomerang effect of the intervention. Targeting directly only the above-average consumers can prevent this.


In conclusion, it is clear that the intention-action gap in the context of eco-friendly behaviour is a complex issue that should be tackled, in the best of all possible worlds, with greater political campaigns for sensibilization and with greater information and data about how best to behave. However, it is exactly in contexts where things are not that easy that nudge interventions work best.






Nudge of the Month

Nudging can be a child’s play…but it’s not!


A (funny) reflection on the nature of nudging

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate


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Nudge interventions take several forms. Sometimes they can be very sophisticated and relying on long and complex empirical studies, sometimes they can be very nice, funny, and easy to implement. Among the nudges of this second kind, it is often possible to find nudges that ultimately look like little games to play. In fact, one example comes from one of the first and most famous nudge interventions to be known: ever heard of the so-called “urinal fly”?

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The urinal fly, as can be easily guessed, is a fly-resembling sticker that was introduced into men’s urinal bathrooms in Amsterdam’s Schiphol Airport in the early 1990s as an incentive for users to aim at it. Looks like a game, right? A very simple game that was actually very effective in reducing spillage on the bathroom’s floor by as far as 80%! The effectiveness and simplicity of the intervention opened the door for the imitation and multiplication of similar interventions that actually looked like games that made it funny and engaging to do boring actions.

Among these, we can find more sophisticated versions of the urinal fly, such as the “urinal football goal” or the “bin basketball hoop”.unnamed (3)

Moreover, an object that was extremely subject to redesigns is the alarm clock, that began to become “smart”. What smart clocks do is easy: they play with cognitive biases to force you out of the bed. The first smart clock to be released was “Clocky”, the clock that runs away until you catch it and turn it off, soon followed by clocks designed to look like sport balls, that need to be thrown away to be turned off. In these cases, the clock works as a nudge because it gives an external environmental help to lazy people for battling with their weak self-control (of which people are aware, but cannot help to improve, especially in the morning). Many other clocks, however, go even further, doing the most annoying things to force you to wake up: even burning a dollar or donating to your least favorite charity if you don’t turn it off in time, therefore playing with the human loss aversion bias in a very exquisite way!


Given the examples of funny nudges just cited (and the list could go on even more), it is almost too easy to think about another trend that is very popular nowadays: gamification

In fact, when in need of a vast and fast behaviour change, nudging is not the only strategy available on the market: on the contrary, gamification is another intriguing strategy that is mostly used in marketing and business companies to interact with consumers and, possibly, make them feel engaged with the products or services offered by the brand. But what exactly is gamification? The gamification phenomenon can be defined as “the use of game mechanics and game design techniques in non-gaming context” and, as such, gamification is – exactly as nudging – a powerful tool to drive and direct behaviour change.


However, even if funny nudges seem to have so much in common with the gamification phenomenon, a consistent difference does exist between nudging and gamification. To disentangle them, it can be useful to remember one of the most commonly accepted definitions of nudge, as told by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in their book “Nudge. Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness” (2008): “A nudge, as we will use the term, is any aspect of the choice architecture that alters people’s behavior in a predictable way without forbidding any options or significantly changing their economic incentives.” On the other hand, gamification relies, as said, on gaming mechanisms, which inherently consist in positive incentives such as rewarding the player with additional points, in-game rewards, the pleasure of reaching defined goals and the amusement of playing itself (let’s not forget that dopamine is the greatest reward for our brain!). In this way, gamification works by associating a positive behaviour with a positive reward – as a classical conditioning mechanism – and results in a motivation of the consumer driven by the promise of an external reward. From here, it is clear that the main difference between gamification and nudging relies in the concept of incentive or reward: gamification does exclusively revolve around the principle of the reward (even if it is not a purely economical one), whereas what nudging does, instead, is rearranging the environment around us exploiting human cognitive bases, to simplify decisions in a way to induce towards them without external incentives. To make this difference even clearer, here are some examples of gamification interventions that are essentially different from the funny nudges described before.

Recyclebankunnamed-1.png: a website app that uses gamification techniques (e.g. point, challenges, rewards, leader boards) to encourage sustainable behaviour like recycling, choosing greener products, pledging to take shorter showers, etc. The result of this campaign was a 16% increase of recycling in Philadelphia.

unnamed-8.jpgMobike: a Chinese company and the biggest Bike sharing platform available in the market that has developed a gamification system to ensure the respect of civil rules by all the users, in order to tackle the issue of thefts and vandalism – which is unfortunatelyvery common in Italy. Every account is linked with a score that can increase or decrease according to the behaviour of the cyclist (parking in appropriate areas, vandalism, signaling damaged bikes…), and that in the future will be linked with the tariff of the single user. To ensure appropriate parking behaviour, the app provides a map suggesting where to park your bike and hence helping you get additional points.

unnamedFitbit: a company that produces a series of wearable smartwatches designed to change lifestyle behaviours. These smartwatches can be considered the result of what can be summed up as “the gamification of healthcare”, an increasing trend especially in countries where obesity and the risk to develop diabetes are high. The system is aimed at making people feeling more engaged in their attempts to feel better and healthier. The software, designed to be attractive, motivates you through daily health goals that, when achieved, unlock points that can be used to get shopping discounts or even money!

In conclusion, we cannot deny that in few years both nudge and gamification applications have spread across any aspect of life going in similar directions. However, while certainly hoping that they can continue working in parallel or in synergy (with potentially interesting outcomes!), it is also equally important to always keep in mind that, however similar, they are two different strategies that work with very different cognitive mechanisms.



R. H. Thaler, C. R. Sunstein (2008), Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness, Penguin Books.


Nudge of the Month

“Are You A Voter?”

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate

Few political and social occasions have been needing and taking advantage of behavioural insights as much as the period preceding political elections and the moment of the vote itself.

28722350_10215636544330017_1689889187_nIn fact, nowadays, two major problems obstruct the correct and useful functioning of the democratic ritual that voting represents: on the one hand, the constant lowering of voters’ turnout that modern democracy is currently facing, and, on the other hand, the ambiguity of the formulation of questions and answers on the actual voting ballot, which only leads citizens to get confused about how they should vote. The applications of nudges during political elections have been numerous and widespread in the last few years and to give an idea of the immense power that behavioural interventions can have in this field, the following paragraphs will propose a comparison between a disastrous case that was caused by poor application of behavioral insights versus some clever and winning examples of it.

American elections (horror) story: the case of 2000

In 2000, candidates George W. Bush and Al Gore were running for the U.S. presidential elections. At that time, in Palm Beach County (Florida), it was common practice to adopt a punch card voting system: voters just had to punch the ballot to select their favourite candidate. Unfortunately, the so called “butterfly” ballot was so wrongly designed that more than 2000 Democratic voters confused the democratic candidate Al Gore with the Reform Party candidate Pat Buchanan. What has gone wrong?

Many voters said they had expected Gore and Bush to be the first two choices, and – since people usually tend to limit their cognitive effort – they also never scanned the names in the right-side column to check their assumption: as a consequence, they automatically punched the second hole instead of the third. As predictable, Pat Buchanan recorded in Palm Beach 3,407 votes (where only 371 were statistically predicted), and George W. Bush got enough votes to win in Florida with a 537-vote margin.


As we know from nudge literature, a certain design has the power to influence behaviour of people, and, in this case, it ignored voters’ status quo bias: a cognitive mechanism that makes us stick to the first decision or assumption made to avoid supplementary cognitive work. A better design should therefore have reduced the cognitive work involved in understanding where the first two candidates were listed. Unfortunately, ballot design change is a complex matter that still causes concern today: in his research, Lawrence Norden stated that in the 2008’s and 2010’s general elections more than 400,000 voters had their ballots annulled for mistakes. This happens because improvements are slow due to bureaucracy, and best practices tend to be implemented too late.

However, different solutions do exist. In particular, policy-makers should aim at the adoption of a more user-friendly layout of paper ballots, designing them to avoid any kind of bias through clearly stated instructions and distinct colour patterns (moreover, showing facsimiles to instruct voters beforehands can always be a good idea). Similarly, in the case of use of electronic systems, it could be useful to assess the efficacy of the interface through the now common usability tests.


American elections (behavioural) story: the case of 2008 and 2012

2008-10-11-BarackisHope-thumbWhereas in the previous cases it was possible to notice an evident absence of behavioural consciousness in the policy-makers, America also provides a virtuous example of application of behavioural insights. In fact, with Barack Obama something began to change: he was one of the first American presidents who made explicit use of behavioural insights to his advantage. Recruiting an actual team of behavioural scientists to sustain and guide his political campaigns, he eventually managed to beat his Republican opponents both in 2008 and 2012.
So, what did this behavioural insights team find and how did it help Obama win?

The strategy of behavioural scientists David Nickerson and Todd Rogers – from University of Notre Dame and Harvard Kennedy School respectively – was to focus on monitoring what can be called people’s “behavioural journey” towards the vote. They studied which cognitive biases can arise when people have to face a future vote. What they found is that people don’t only struggle to make a decision about who to vote for, but they often also fail to plan how to vote, finding themselves trapped in procrastination, laziness, and confusion about where to go and what exactly to do on the crucial day.

Therefore, to understand how to nudge people to actually go out and cast that vote, the two scientists conducted a randomized control trial on 278.000 eligible voters of Pennsylvania during 2008’s elections, dividing the subjects into three groups: one control, one receiving the standard phone call reciting the protocol “get out the vote” message, and a third experimental group that, after the standard message, was also asked practical questions about what time they were going to vote, where they were coming from, and what they would be doing before voting. The results showed an increase in the turnouts of about 9% from people in the third group, showing that when people are nudged to make up a specific plan, it is then easier for them to stick with it. A simple but effective application of this principle therefore consists in giving practical information about the modalities of vote as much as possible.

o1Moreover, another interesting study was led during the same period by social psychologist Christopher J. Bryan and his colleagues from Stanford University. Before the same 2008’s elections, they sent out an online survey divided into two target groups: one asking people whether or not they thought it was important for them “to vote”, the other one asking whether it was important for them to “be a voter”. Not only they received answers to the survey from 87% of the people in the second group versus the 55% of the first, but they also found – in a follow-up study – that 96% of the people in the second group actually voted, against 82% of people from the first group. What this study clearly shows goes beyond a simple framing effect (the cognitive bias that makes us perceive the same thing differently based on how it is framed or formulated), pointing to the interesting conclusion that people respond better to a call to action when they are appealed and motivated by the idea that they are shown about themselves doing that action, rather than by the idea of the action per se: a phenomenon called personal-identity phrasing. Again, this useful insight was used during Obama’s campaign by addressing the potential voters in a way to remark their identity as a voter, powerfully triggering the need to reaffirm that identity once more.   

In conclusion, the presented examples showed how behavioural insights (and sometimes their absence) can have massive impacts in the context of political elections: a context where the ability to drive the behaviour of considerable numbers of citizens is of crucial importance. Therefore, it is important to recognize how this power can be exploited for political purposes and that it might affect political results in desired or unexpected ways.




Nudge of the Month

App(lication)s of Behavioral Economics

By Francesco Amighetti and Beatrice Del Frate

The core principle that is at the heart of the nudge theory is that “change comes not from the inside, but the outside”, as clearly expressed by Dan Ariely – professor of psychology and behavioral economics and director of the Center for Advanced Hindsight at Duke University. For this reason, the great majority of nudge interventions consists in the re-shaping of the environment where crucial choices have to take place. 

However, as the world and technology are constantly developing, so are the ways of implementing nudges. In days where everyone owns a smartphone and constantly uses it, a new and functional possibility to nudge without having to impact the outer environment comes precisely from smartphone apps. In fact, a large number of apps are nowadays being developed with insights from Behavioral Science, which contribute to make the apps we use smarter and more useful. These apps, in turn, help us behave in a smarter way in different aspects of our lives. 

Two interesting examples concern the issues of following medical therapies more closely and saving more money. In both cases, choices are bound to our innate cognitive limitation in dealing with intertemporal choices, which makes it difficult for us to follow a greater goal in the future at the expense of a smaller but instant reward. Let’s see how apps can tackle  this issue.



A health-saving app: Wellth

According to the World Health Organization, patient nonadherence to therapy is a worldwide problem that should be taken seriously into consideration. 45% of the US population suffer from chronic pathologies and in developed countries only 50% of those patients take the medication they have been prescribed. Nonadherence is a costly issue: in the US it is estimated to cause 125.000 deaths every year and a national cash outflow of $289 billion.

While pervasiveness of technology and its user-friendliness are often exploited to improve healthcare services and their outcomes, behavioural economics innovations have been introduced only recently to tackle these problems. Wellth, a start-up based in Brooklyn, is a smartphone app that highlighted the opportunities coming from the connection between these two concepts.

Designed especially for heart attack post-discharge adherence, daily weight monitoring, diabetes care-plans adherence, and lung diseases self-management, Wellth combines technology with behavioural economics, leveraging financial loss incentives in order to change patients’ behaviour.

How does it work? The hospital deposits $150 into your account as soon as you start to follow your medication plan. Every day for 3 months, Wellth sends you reminders and monitors your adherence using the camera (e.g. taking a snap of you taking the pills). Any time you do not comply with the plan, you lose $2 per day.

In spite of appearing trivial at first glance, it brings consistent results: developers claimed that it is possible to obtain a 40% or better reduction to readmissions through the app, leading to higher-level patient satisfaction and greater cost savings for both patients and healthcare companies.




A money-saving app: Qapital

Everyone wants to save money. But, everyone also finds it almost impossible to do so. Qapital is a Swedish startup that has developed an interesting app for this reason, with the investment and counseling of professor Ariely himself.

How does it work? The idea behind the app is simple: make something difficult easy and fun. More precisely, Qapital makes you save “just by doing the things you do”. In practice, this means that the act of saving is transferred into daily activities.

It all starts with setting a goal and the money needed for it, as a way to keep motivated. Afterwards, the app – which is connected with users’ credit cards – makes you set saving rules: mechanisms that allow the app itself to keep and save a set amount of money whenever performing a given action. For example, the “round up rule” saves 75 cents for every $2.25 spent for a bus ticket; the “spend less rule” asks you to spend less than $20 at Starbucks per week and keeps the rest as saving; the “guilty pleasure rule” holds extra money back whenever food is ordered online; and so on. Of course, rules are customizable in order to adjust to everyone’s daily habits and routine.

In practice, what Qapital does is nudging to break down a large saving into smaller day by day savings. In this way, it tackles the problem of intertemporal choice by making the goal closer and more achievable. It also reshapes the psychological perception of the act of saving itself, which goes from being an effort that requires great self-control to being something within everyone’s reach. 





Nudge of the Month

Good Resolutions and How to Keep Them

By Beatrice Del Frate and Francesco Amighetti

Christmas holidays represent a good moment to spend time with family and friends and to escape from routine. After majestic meals and never-ending celebrations, the onset of the new year is always accompanied by a list of desires, very likely the ones we had the previous year. Probably one of the most common wishes is to finally obtain that so much desired beach-body.

Obviously, immediate solutions might be to have a gym membership or to go to the swimming pool. Nevertheless, if you are starting from a period of prolonged inactivity, it may be better for you to begin with smaller steps…literally! A common suggestion for maintaining resolutions is to decompose bigger goals into smaller sets of sub-goals that are easier to achieve. To maintain the goal of becoming more active in the next year (and hopefully lose weight in the process), it may be helpful to keep in mind that there are also smaller and simpler gestures that can have a huge physical impact in the long run: this is the case of taking stairs whenever there is the chance.


Luckily for us, nudges can help do this without much thinking. Stairs nudging is one of the most famous nudge cases: it is simple to implement and monitor and it has a high degree of effectiveness. Principally, stairs are made more attractive through bright colours and visual signals, and/or through motivational quotes and messages (like the calories burned for each step). Here are some creative and smart examples.

Catching the underground?

Redesigning of stairs in metro station is one of the most common and fun ways to implement this kind of nudge, usually done by city associations or temporary sponsors.

For example, in Lyon, in 2016, Pep’s association monitored a  350% increase in the number of stairs users simply by making metro station stairs more captivating. They used a colourful floral design and a simple but clear message: “Your good health is at the end of this staircase”. Furthermore, what they experienced is that people reported a higher intention to take the stairs again if confronted with the same choice in the future.


During the same year in Hamburg the stairs of the metro station have been painted like an athletics red track, in order to publicize the Hamburg 2024 Marathon and consequently to incentivize the use of the stairs by travellers. Unfortunately, in this case no data have been collected, but given results from previous studies, it is likely to have been effective.



Or catching a flight?

A very recent study conducted by Dr. J. Bellettiere and colleagues, published in December 2017, tested the effectiveness of stair nudges in a different context: San Diego International Airport.

For 22 days, the team introduced five signs with different messages at the starting point of the stairs and the escalators. The messages were the following: “Please reserve the escalator for those who need it.”, “Don’t lose time, lose weight. Use the Stairs.”, “Don’t waste Time, trim your Waistline. Use the Stairs.”, “You’ll get more stares if you use the stairs.”, and “If you want to feel younger, act younger. Step it up! Use the stairs.”. The messages were alternated for ten days, and between each a “no sign day” was added as control. Moreover, the subjects were stopped and asked to fill in a survey about their physical habits.


The results showed that the signs doubled the number of people that decided to take the stairs (despite carrying luggage!). These included not only regular exercisers but also non-regular exercisers and – most importantly – non-exercisers.

These results taken together emphasize the efficacy of motivational signs in nudging people by reminding them their core values and goals.  


Nudge of the Month

Espresso…What else?

Just start with few questions for coffee-addicted people: how many coffees do you take per day and how much sugar do you usually consume per coffee?

We all know that the world divides into two types of people: those who like their coffee natural, and those who like it sweet (sometimes very sweet).


If you happen to be in the second group, we have bad news for you. According to the WHO, sugar is one of the major causes of several diseases, especially obesity. Given that the limit of sugar that an adult male can ingest is about 50g per day (7-10 teaspoons of sugar), charging your coffee with extra sugar may not be the best choice for your health, especially if you drink more than simply one or two coffees per day.

Changing habits is easier in words than in action, but there is also good news for all sweet coffee lovers: several kinds of nudges have been developed to address the issue, and have the potential to find further applications in the food sector, for our health’s sake. Here are two simple but effective examples.


Do you like to take your coffee at the cafeteria?


Have you ever realised that every time you go to the cafeteria taking a coffee, a tea or a cappuccino, automatically you accompany it with one or two sugar bags?

A study conducted in Italy has investigated whether coffee consumers are aware of how much sugar they consume each time they take a break.

The behaviour of two groups of people has been monitored for 6 days – each one before and after reducing the weight of sugar in each packet from 7g to 4g. The research has shown that the reduction in sugar consumed per client is statistically significant.

This means that reducing the weight of sugar does not affect the number of packets clients take, as people tend to pick up a fixed number of packets out of habit.

Or are you just looking for a quick break?


Most of the times, busy students and workers prefer to just grab a coffee at the nearest vending machine. In this case, how often do they actually pay attention to choosing the amount of sugar?

Assuming that students do not change the default amount of sugar that is set by the machine (e.g. leaving the selection to 3 out of 5 units of sugar), a first simple way to reduce sugar consumption may be reducing the default level of sugar from 3 to 2. In this way, increasing sugar would be an active choice, that is likely not to happen. In fact, behavioural scientists have largely shown that people generally have a bias for maintaining the status quo.

A nudge has been hypothesized by Albert Gascon, a participant in a Nudge Competition on
It consists of two intelligent strategies tested in a single nudge intervention.

Firstly, the choice of sugar may be put before the choice of the drink; secondly, instead of reporting “more sugar” and “less sugar”, the extremes of the scale may report the options “healthier” and “less healthy”. In this way, consumers are induced to pay more attention to their choice – instead of relying upon the default option – and are nudged towards a better choice through highlighting the consequences of their choices, that are too often not taken into consideration.



State of mind

Albert Gascon