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I’m being nudged and it’s not just me, it’s you, too (you might not know it but you’ve felt the nudge). Probably all of us.

And maybe it’s a good thing.

Nudge theory is a concept in behavioural psychology that uses “positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions” to nudge people into making certain choices – usually choices that are good for them. Nudge theory has been widely used by governments to push their populations to litter less, smoke in designated areas, and contribute to savings plans.

But perhaps the best example of nudge theory is the nudge many men have experienced in public urinals in the form of a fly. Ladies, if you don’t know, often times in men’s urinals there is a little fly sticker in the centre of the urinal. I’d always assumed it was a fun little thing that toilet designers included to make urinating just that much more fun. Turns out it was all part of a ploy to cut cleaning costs.

Men are messy urinators. The fly was introduced in Schiphol Airport in Amsterdam in the early 1990s as a way to get men to stop urinating on the floor. (Yeah, guys are gross.)

The way it works is that men aim at the fly – or, in the case of the urinals in Germany pictured above, goalposts – because men like to aim at stuff when they do anything, and this keeps them focused on urinating into the urinal instead of on the floor and walls and ceilings, which is apparently where men will pee if given free reign.

And it worked.

Spillage – which is a really nice way to say it – was reduced by 80%!

And it was all due to a little nudge.

That’s how nudge theory works. It provides an attractive or easily accessible opportunity and then gives us the choice whether to take it or not. And it’s more effective than fining people into making changes.

A good example of this is in Singapore where smoking is discouraged at bus stops; waste baskets with ash trays are placed away from the stops to encourage a separation between smokers and others.

Another common nudge, which isn’t so benevolent, is the line of salty and sweet snacks usually corralled around the supermarket check out line. This is trying to nudge us into buying the unhealthy snacks we’ve been trying to avoid while we were walking the aisles.

But supermarkets can nudge in healthy directions.

In one study by New Mexico State University in the United States, researchers put duct tape across the middle of shopping carts with a sign that directed consumers to put fruits and vegetables in front of the tape and other items behind it. Sounds nuts, but the result was a 102% increase in the sale of fruits and vegetables.

I’m currently making a duct tape divider that I can put on my shopping cart.

Simply mentioning fruits and vegetables with the inane direction of where to place them in the cart got people thinking about fruits and vegetables, and resulted in more sales.

Another fun example of nudge theory is pricing something outrageously high, which prompts the purchase of the second highest and reasonably priced item. Take the US$666 (RM2,600) Douche Burger. It’s called a Douche Burger because it’s wrapped in hundred dollar bills and topped with a bunch of rich people toppings, making it just uber douchey.

But this is the decoy effect. Nobody really orders the Douche Burger, and if they did I suspect they would be eating their own 100 dollar bills in the process, but just having this item on the menu encourages people to purchase the next item on the menu.

Nudging is definitely an effective way to get people to make changes in their lives, as Richard Thaler expounded on in his simply titled book, Nudge (2008).

Thaler is a proponent of governments using nudges to get people to make positive decisions for themselves. The beauty here is that the government acknowledges that people don’t like being told what to do. Nobody likes being forced to do something, even if that something is in their best interest. The nudge gives people the option to make another choice, though the positive choice is often easier.

Opponents of nudge theory say it’s a form of psychological manipulation used in social engineering. Which it absolutely is. But we’re getting manipulated every day by advertising, nudges online to purchase items we don’t need, nudges from social media to like and share anyway, so, personally, I don’t mind if someone nudges me towards eating a little healthier every once in a while.

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=-BJa4nEmsZk?feature=oembed&w=770&h=433]

Big Smile, No Teeth columnist Jason Godfrey – who once was told to give the camera a ‘big smile, no teeth’ – has worked internationally for two decades in fashion and continues to work in dramas, documentaries, and lifestyle programming. Write to him at star2@thestar.com.my.

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