Nudges: The Design of Your Choice

Nudges: The Design of Your Choice

A psychological approach to design and behavioral technique that helps individuals make the right decision

Signs pointing in different directions

Chances are that someone today has nudged you. Any 3+1 free promotional emails in your inbox? Or a buzz on your phone to remind you about an upcoming webinar in 30 minutes? In fact, the private sector has been using behavioural techniques and nudges for years, ever since the rise of Madison Avenue’s Ad Men. It has taken a few generations, but increasing scientific attention to the psychology of consumers has led to an uptake in the public sector.

The word nudge first appeared in literature in the late 90’s, but it was not until 2008 that prominence was brought to nudge theory by renowned behavioural economists Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein in their book Nudge. Ever since, the Nobel-prize-winning theory has gained following in politics, economics and the development sector. Nudge Units have been set up at national level in the UK and Japan, but also on international level at the OECD and UN.

Choice Architecture

Thaler and Sunstein defined their concept as:

A nudge, as we will use the term, 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 intervention must be easy and cheap to avoid. Nudges are not mandates. Putting fruit at eye level counts as a nudge. Banning junk food does not.

In short: a nudge is a subtle shift in the way options are presented, making the preferential choice the most attractive, to help people make the best decision. Nudges are quite powerful, as they tend to take advantage of people’s existing intentions and make it easier to enact them. A simple example is the experiment Cornell University performed in 2013 that demonstrated that the consumption of apples in high schools can go up by 71% if the cafeteria offers pre-sliced apples instead of whole apples. Basically, the schools made it easy for students to choose to eat the apples, and so they did.

Sliced apple in mid air
Nudging for a gender aware labour force

The ITCILO has its very own nudging project. ILSGEN created an online platform with the purpose to rethink policy design in terms of effectiveness and implementation. The website shows ILO colleagues’ existing tools to design gender-inclusive employment policies with increased relevance and power. “Gender discrimination often starts from an unconscious bias. The interesting part about this project was that we used a reversed psychology approach: nudge people’s behaviour on an often unconscious level by adjusting the choice architecture and guiding them towards more inclusive policies,” says Benedetta Magri, Senior Programme Officer of ILSGEN, International Labour Standards, Rights at Work and Gender Equality. The platform offers a basic explanation of what nudging is, as well as variety of examples on work-level and policy formulation-level. There is also a section on how to get started yourself with recommended further reading on behavioural science that colleagues can apply to their own expertise. You can find everything at

Everyone nudges

Most likely, you have already used some behavioural strategies or nudges in learning activities to improve educational attainment and achievement. However, you probably won’t have done so consciously or extensively.

Ever used gamification in your training courses, be it face-to-face or online? Rewarding participants with a badge for completing a course, for handing in assignments early or stimulating creativity with an extra point are all forms of nudging people. Choosing to complete, hand in early or creatively go about an assignment becomes the most attractive choice.

What about course marketing? When letting possible future participants know about new activities that are coming up, it is likely that you have kept the email short and creatively used fonts, colours and attractive images to make it easy for your readers to understand the content. If done well, the entire content of your message has built up to guide the targeted audience to click on the hyperlink to the activity’s webpage. Also this is a form of nudging: make the choice of clicking and reading more information easier and more attractive.

Making resources easy to be accessed is another nudge you will have likely used. The ITCILO is moving forward on its digitization by developing the eCampus more and more. In 2017, over 400 courses and academies made use of the eCampus. An online platform allows learners to access content more easily and just in time when they need it. Managing your information resources digitally and providing clear and easy access to them will increase usage, another nudge you may already be familiar with.

A last example you are surely familiar with is nudging to increase the level of achievement in training activities. The eCampus can signal course managers if a participant hasn’t completed a task. This information allows you to nudge the participant with a short message to find out what the problem is, provide extra guidance and enable him or her to continue with the course.

Arrow pointing upwards
A next generation of nudges

The increasing use of technology to effectively provide information about important educational activities is a clear indicator the future of nudging for learning lies there.

Learning platforms will soon be able to leverage user data to suggest personalized learning pathways. This personalization of learning will most certainly improve the quality of training services and increase the number of participants for a relatively small cost.

Learners will also be more and more nudged instead of instructed; tutored instead of lectured. Behaviour will be guided by a web of associations and affiliations rather than clear pedagogical methodologies. Networked technologies will be used as a form of pedagogical persuasion to influence and shape the learner’s behaviour, maybe even at the unconscious or irrational level.

Beware of the nudgeocrats

With learning becoming more open and networked, it is important that we can distinguish soft nudging for behavioural optimization, such as the sliced apples or nudging for gender equality, from political strategies that hide behind a subtle psychological persuasion. Ben Williamson, researcher of the interweaving of politics, economics and digital technologies in education at Stirling University says: “the nudgeocratic ideals of soft paternalism can just as easily promote inappropriate decisions and supplier bias, create cognitive errors, contribute to the formation of harmful behaviors, and lead to the stigmatization of behaviourally recalcitrant social groups, as it can encourage personal responsibility and well-being. Nudging is also, potentially, politically manipulative, reconfiguring government as an agent of persuasion.” However, if applied as described by Thaler and Sunstein, nudging should only result in a small, short-term change of behaviour and does not have a long-term effect on people’s attitudes. Nevertheless, a fair warning is in place.

Complementing actions

Digital nudging will never replace professional trainers, strong curricula or face-to-face behavioural interventions. However, it does complement the ITCILO’s action to continuously improve access to and engagement with learning rather well. In a time when funding for the international development sector is stretched thin, the high impact and low cost of nudging can be a powerful tool, also for trainers. So let’s embrace future technological advancement, as nudging through data and networks can lead to substantial improvements in the optimization and personalization of training services in the future.



“Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth and Happiness”, R. Thaler, C. Sunstein, 2008.

To explore all kinds of nudging behaviours, have a look at the Nudge App: bct-taxonomy/id871193535?mt=8

Nudging for a gender-aware labour force:

“What Is A Nudge?” TED Radio Hour. NPR. 24 June 2016. NPR. Web. 10 August 2016:

“Nudging for Student Success: How Behavioral Science Can Improve Education” Ben Castleman, 23 October 2017: behavioral-science-improve-education-ben-castleman

“Learning and the emerging science of behaviour change, aka nudging” Ben Williamson, 19 November 2012: ing-science-of-behavior-change-aka-nudging/


Originally published in the Future of Learning magazine.