Nudging People’s Behavior

Accountability Communication Teamwork


Key Point: How can you and I change people’s behavior? Well it’s a trick question, because of course; we can’t change people’s behavior. We can only change our own behavior. However, we can help people make better choices and act in ways that lead them toward their desired outcomes.

Victoria Fener is a co-founder of, a firm dedicated to applying behavioral economics and related tools for better outcomes. She recently spent some time with our team and shared some important insights.  

Fener notes how research shows that people behave in irrationally, but somewhat predictable ways. The following are a few examples: 

  1. Default choices, like “opting out” work better than “opting in.” For example, if you wanted permission from people to allow for organ donations, the results are much better if people can intentionally opt out versus intentionally opting in. We are kind of lazy.
  1. Loss aversion is more powerful than the equivalent gain. Most us would take stronger action to avoid losing an already awarded free plane ticket than do something to earn an equivalent new one.
  1. People are less patient as time decreases. Most of us would rather have one sure thing immediately, than more of the same if we waited. This is the “bird in the hand versus two in the bush” idea.
  1. Most of us are more attracted to winning experiences than cash. Research shows more of us would rather buy lotto tickets to win a dream home or safari, than tickets for the cash equivalent. 
  1. Framing is a vital component when helping people make choices. For example, if we knew there was a possibility that 600 people would die and we were given two options. A: Saves 200 people, or B: 400 people die. Most of us would choose A. Of course, 400 people die either way, but framing the positive “saving” option is more appealing.
  1. We do better with a head start even when the distance is the same. If we had one of those stamp cards where we get a free drink after buying 10, we would be more likely to use a card requiring 12 drinks but with two free stamps already on it, than one with 10 and no free stamps. Of course, in either case, one has to buy 10 to get a free drink, but we do better with a little success already built in.
  1. We are biased by what we’ve recently seen or heard. If a 20 percent tip option is put in front of us, we are likely to choose that versus tipping at our own discretion. Our mind tricks our body a little when the sub-conscience is influenced, hence subliminal messaging. 

All of us design things, and therefore we become architects in impacting choices people make. We are recognizing more and more that information and knowledge alone do not necessarily help us change. Nutrition knowledge and obesity trends validate that. We often know what we should or would like to do, AND still need a nudge. If not, we’d all be skinny with six pack abs.

Character Moves:

  1. Really dig into understanding “what’s really in it for ourselves and the other person” to help us better understand how to help and encourage a desired outcome. Remember, we need to be humble enough to appreciate that knowledge and information does not automatically lead people to better outcomes. Of course understanding “why” is vital, but not necessarily sufficient.
  1. Invest in understanding behavioral economics and recognize the importance of design and choice architecture. Learn how to give people a positive nudge. When we combine knowledge with experience and choice design, then people will be more motivated to change… Including developing new habits. Design intentionality and choice architecture are going to get a lot more attention than they have before. Get ahead of the curve. 

Nudging in The Triangle, 

One Millennial View: As a Millennial, I’m aware it’s my generation that would be the first to challenge this… “How dare you challenge my behaviors? Where’s my safe space?” Blah blah blah. But really, we all know a million ways we’d like to improve ourselves. It just comes down to whether we’re willing to curb our laziness, selfishness, fears, comfort, routines, etc. in order to walk toward what we know will be a tough, uneasy, unpredictable journey. It’s scary, but this is where that whole “no one told you it would be easy” comes to play. And we could all benefit from a positive nudge.

– Garrett