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Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 2 – Mere exposure

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘Using the power of repetition not just to build memory, but also trust.’

Behavioural economics is fascinating. Understanding some of the fundamentals of human decision-making will give you far more control over successful outcomes of personal and professional goals than you might have ever expected. But how do you turn this science into practice? This is a blog series highlighting the best insights from behavioural economics translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of mere exposure

Don’t you wish you could remember things better? Every interesting article you’ve ever read, everything you’ve learned in school, wouldn’t it be fantastic if you could recite them by heart? Well, you know what you have got to do then right? Eat, sleep, and repeat. That’s the traditional approach to recognising and remembering. And it does work— sort of. If you repeatedly see or read things, you tend to remember them. Or put differently, the number of times you are exposed to something helps something to be captured in the memory structures of our brain

But the truth is our memories are not infallible. As Kahneman and Tversky have proven, our brain operates on two decision systems: system 1 and system 2. System 2 is a slave to our system 1, which is our automatic, unconscious operating system that uses cues and shortcuts (called heuristics) to form judgments and opinions. Judgments and opinions that our system 2 then turns into beliefs. As Kahneman puts it:

‘Very quickly, you form an impression, and then you spend most of your time confirming it instead of collecting evidence.’

People rewrite and reshape their memories, often to fit with their existing beliefs. I read this quote from Caroline Webb that summarises it perfectly: ‘The startling truth is that we don’t experience the world as it is; we’re always experiencing an edited, simplified version’. What has this got to do with your memory? We tend to see our memory as a recording device that captures facts, observations and information with accuracy. The truth is, our memory is highly subjective.


The Law of Unintended Consequences

That subjectivity of our brain also makes it very interesting though. As it brings one of my all-time favourite mental laws into play: The ‘Law of Unintended Consequences’ also known as second-order effects. Yes, you can use repetition or exposure to capture information, but this is only an immediate consequence of the action (repeat-remember). There is a subsequent effect of our repetition action as well. Behavioural science adds on a fascinating second-order effect on the concept of repetition that explains why using repetition can help you be more influential. 

If you repeat something, it doesn’t only activate memory; it also triggers trust and liking.

So, if you repeat things, you become trust worthier, hence more influential. In behavioural science, this is called the mere exposure effect, also known as the familiarity principle. It describes a phenomenon that causes humans to rate or feel positively about things to which they are frequently and consistently exposed, including other people.

Just think about when you hear a new song on the radio. At first, you may not like it, but after hearing it a couple of times it starts growing on you, and you start loving it. As you grow more familiar with the tune and lyrics, you can even get quite fond of the song. It like the saying: ‘something grows on you’.

The first scientific study on the relationship between exposure and appreciation goes way back to 1960. Researchers first asked participants to rate several nonsense words on a good-bad scale. They were then notified that they were in an experiment measuring the effectiveness of repetition in learning to pronounce strange words correctly. Some of these words were shown once, others twice, five times, or ten times. Participants had to take a look at the words, and then pronounce them every time they were presented to them. Following this ‘training’, they had to rate the words again on the good-bad scale. A significant repetition (or exposure) effect was seen, with the words shown frequently increasing in positive evaluation

Strangely, however, words which were seen only once in training were judged afterwards not quite as ‘good’ as before the start of the training. Thus, as a result of 2, 5, and 10 exposures words improved in meaning, and as a result of but one exposure, they worsened. The study revealed the same effect with Chinese characters that people didn’t understand.

So, even when you talk bullocks like Trump (sorry, I could not let that one pass), but repeat it enough people may trust you anyway. But let’s leave the roaring research sixties behind and let us see this principle a bit more in the light of the present. 

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Using the mere exposure effect to create brand loyalty

I guess the most discussed application of the mere exposure effect can be found in marketing and communication. If you expose someone to a brand logo, slogan or communication vehicle often enough, it boosts recognition. People will even recognise brands with the brand name removed. Familiar stimuli require less cognitive effort. We don’t have to go to the trouble of reading brand names, but we recognise the colours, shape of the logo and font types that we were exposed to many times before. Just do a little test yourself. I guess you can tell me which soft drinks these are even if you aren’t fluent in Arabic:

Visual source: Google.


Studies have shown that recognition, whether correct or mistaken, enhances the likelihood of preferenceTherefore, mere repetition can boost brand liking and brand loyalty. I guess we have all been there. If you ask me why I buy a particular brand of toothpaste, I buy it because I am used to buying it. I couldn’t give you a clear-cut answer to the benefits of my toothpaste or on which features it outperforms other toothpaste brands. I just like it (or have grown to like it because of familiarity). It again all links back to the fact that:

Our brain is continually trying to lower our cognitive overload and repetition helps us make autopilot decisions.

There is all kind of tactics to use mere exposure in marketing and communication. Depicting familiar situations in your communication, presenting ads several times, developing a distinctive identity, playing by the sector rules (ever wondered why all hotel booking sites look the same? Now you know), and so on. To me, however, the far more impressive effect of mere exposure is the impact it can have on decision-making. 


Using mere exposure to make better decisions

It is essential to realise that the mere exposure effect substantially impacts human decision-making. People apply for schools, pick restaurants, favour people of which they heard the names more often or which they saw more frequently. So, if you commute by train to work every day and you see the same person making the same journey day in day out, you start to trust this person. The same goes for colleagues: the ones you see or interact with more often you tend to like more.

Liking people is one thing, but what if this mere exposure favouring affects your decision-making? To give you an example. If people apply for secondary education, they may consider a school, after reading the school curriculum and the school brochure, to be the perfect match but still apply for a school with a lesser fit because they have heard of it more often. Have you ever wondered why that blend, uniform looking global hotel chains are still in business? It is again the mere exposure effect at work. People may spend hours browsing hotel booking sites, checking out pictures and reviews of luxurious or boutique hotels. But often they tend to book a hotel which they are familiar with. Hence, settling with they already know. This is also known as satisficing instead of maximising. Most of us are satisficers.

Well-known brands give people comfort, especially in uncertain situations such as travelling to new surroundings. It’s like seeing your national air carrier on an airport across the world. It feels a bit like home in a strange kind of way. It is one of the pillars of success for fast food chains such as McDonald’s. Because you are exposed to them everywhere, all across the world, McD becomes familiar to you, and it makes many people tend to feel more secure to eat there instead of at the food stalls on the streets of Bangkok, which is a major mistake! Nothing, nothing beats eating Thai street food. I almost can’t make a better case than this that mere exposure sometimes makes you make worse decisions.      

This flaw in decision-making has to do with a cognitive bias: ambiguity or uncertainty aversion. This is the human tendency to favour the known over the unknown, including known risks over unknown risks. This is why stockbrokers tend to invest in domestic companies more often, even though international companies are showing better numbers. But it also prevents people like me and you to invest in stock markets because it has risks that we cannot conceive of understanding. Even more severe is the fact that people choose to withhold from medical treatments if the risks are unknown

If you want to help people to make better decisions, you, therefore, need to be very aware of their anxieties.

Please check out, our Influence Framework© if you want to learn more about the effect of anxiety on behaviour. It would be best if you avoided ambiguity whenever you can.


Using the mere exposure effect to reduce risk

You can also minimise risk perception by again using the mere exposure effect itself. We, as humans are social animals. We want to be liked, we want to be like others, and we want to belong to a group. This is an innate human desire: we all want to be part of something bigger and want to feel respected and accepted. This is the reason why people tend to favour but also trust people who are similar to them.

It will reduce someone’s uncertainty when you expose them to a similar other.

Preferably several times. Let me illustrate this with an example. We worked for an institution that provided a debt relief program for youngsters with serious debts. The program was free of charge, but the attendance rate was meagre. When we conducted Behavioural Research, we revealed that the youngsters had extreme anxiety. They didn’t feel the debt advisors were people like them. When we communicated and showed, truthfully, that the advisors were all people like them that used to have debts themselves, the willingness to attend the program skyrocketed. We merely exposed them (at several touchpoints) with similar and familiar others which reduced the uncertainty aversion and boosted the desired behaviour.


Using mere exposure to have personal influence

If you want to influence someone by using the mere exposure effect, you can do two things. First of all, repeat the message you want to convey over and over again. Of course, connecting the message to genuine human insights as you can unlock with our Influence Framework©. You can use literal repetition, but synonyms can also work. A ‘master’ in using repetition is Donald Trump. Just take a look at how Trump answered a question at Jimmy Kimmel live, analysed by Evan Puschak

Visual source: Evan Puschak


What do you think after reading this text? Do you think we have a problem or not? And do you believe it is a minor problem or one that could harm us? Unfortunately, this rhetoric works. But we can learn from it. Not only how we can influence someone (please don’t turn into a Trump) but also how we are influenced on a system 1 level by the mere exposure effect ourselves.

But there is another way to make this mere exposure work for you without you having to turn into a Dumb. You can also try to be visible yourself around the people you want to influence. Be repetitive exposure in person. In his book ‘How Brands Grow’. Byron Sharp delivers scientific evidence that brands grow not by positioning or differentiation, but by salience. He introduces the concept of ‘mental and physical availability’. The more people see a brand or the more it is evoked in people’s memory; the more people will trust and buy that brand. Again, it shows that:

Familiarity breeds liking.

I believe the same goes for you being influential, as the findings of Sharp make sense and connect with the mere exposure effect. So, know that you’re the brand called you. Make yourself familiar by merely being around and make it easy as possible for people to reach, see or talk to you. And use repetition in your communication.

Be careful not to overexpose.

Not in words, visibility or advertising. Overexposure maybe makes up for arty pictures, but it is an art that is only appreciated by a few. Just a small but essential side-note repeating is not the same as copying. To be perfectly clear. Some people kind of misunderstand what repetition is about and are more in the business of stealing. And not even as an artist I may add.

Visual source: CNBC

Using mere exposure to build better relationships

Now that you are familiar with the mere exposure effect, you can also use it to build better relationships with people. Familiarity is the foundation of every relationship. You share more with people you have seen more. Mere exposure builds interpersonal trust. So, whether you want to earn the trust of a friend or your partner’s friends, your family or your colleagues you need to show up more. Invite them over for drinks, talk to them more often, go to get-togethers or send them a message now and then. It’s how salespeople or the best account managers operate by nature. They remember birthdays, make house calls, and keep in touch regularly. In the end, the unconscious decision-making part of people’s brain will prefer who they are comfortable with.


Using mere exposure to help solve societal problems 

I briefly touched upon the relationship between anxiety and mere exposure. However, anxiety doesn’t always have to be a bad thing; you can also use it to your advantage. The mere exposure effect can help people become more aware and more willing to take action for severe problems. Researchers exposed participants to images of environmental risks and directed their attention repeatedly to a subset of these risks. When the participants were asked about those risk they were exposed to more often, they indicated to judge these risks to be more severe, more frightening, higher priority and more distinctive than risks they were exposed to fewer times. The researchers, therefore, suggest that mere exposure can increase the perceived severity of environmental risks because it increases the fear and distinctiveness of those risks.

I wouldn’t promote fear-mongering by the way, but this research does show that you need to expose people more often to a message to have an effect on memory and action. As we are facing some serious international issues today, it could be beneficial to see if we can leverage the effect of mere exposure. Sometimes people need to be shaken up a bit to care; I don’t know what the right balance is of the amount of fear. Just like a photograph can turn out wrong because of overexposure, the same goes here. Given is, you shouldn’t overdo it. 

Mere exposure: don’t overdo it

Not all exposure is good exposure. Too much exposure can lead to conflicting feelings. Whether it is a person you see too much, or a brand or a communication. It can cause indifference, or something called ‘audience fatigue’. People reach a saturation point. So, you have to find a balance in the number of exposures. But also, the quality of exposures matters. Take a look at this social thread on Tide adds that people seem to dislike much

Visual source: Reddit


When following Byron Sharp’s thinking, you could argue that the quality doesn’t matter and at least Tide has built mental availability. There’s certainly truth in that. But the fact is, too much exposure can decrease liking. Psychologist Wilhelm Wundt discovered that:

People’s enjoyment rises when an idea, experience or product is new, but when it becomes overly familiar, the joy will drop. 

Visual source: the Wundt Curve (see resources below)


The lesson we can learn from this is that yes, we want to build familiarity. But we can build sustainable relationships by changing a familiar product, service or even yourself just enough to make the experience new again. This is why making incremental changes can be a tactic to keep benefiting from the mere exposure effect. And by the way, Wundt also discovered this is the way arousal works. So, if you want your partner to keep longing for you need to get out that familiarity comfort zone. Time to dust of those worn-out habits and find some new excitement.


Using mere exposure to study and remember 

Next to the fact that exposing people to something multiple times is what will activate the exposure effect, there is also the question of timing. When do you expose someone? I guess we have all grown up with the habit to repeat, repeat, repeat to learn new stuff, remember it and reproduce it in tests. What we did back then (and maybe still are doing now) is using repetition to help us remember. But what we were never taught is how to apply this mere exposure effect on ourselves to get a maximum result. And this all has to do with the timings of the exposure.

The best learning experience comes from so-called spaced repetition.

It is one of the most powerful techniques to help your brain recall information (also check out my post about chunking). It would be digging a hole here to dive into the Behavioural Design of learning right now, but to bring you up-to-speed quickly. The benefit of spaced repetition is based on the research of Ebbinghaus who has discovered the Forgetting Curve. This curve shows we forget things over time. 

Visual source: Farnham Street blog


But we can change the curve by adding space between the repetition. Or as Ebbinghaus said himself:

With any considerable number of repetitions, a suitable distribution of them over a space of time is decidedly more advantageous than the massing of them at a single time.

Visual source: Farnham Street blog


I will dedicate a particular blog to the way you can boost your learning experience using spacing and achieve memory mastery by using repeated exposure. For now, this quote of John Medina, author of ‘Brain Rules’ wraps it up nicely:

How do you remember better? Repeated exposure to information in specifically timed intervals provides the most powerful way to fix memory into the brain. …Deliberately re-expose yourself to the information more elaborately, and in fixed, spaced intervals, if you want the retrieval to be the most vivid, it can be. Learning occurs best when new information is incorporated gradually into the memory store rather than when it is jammed in all at once.”

Conclusion: mere exposure is applied behavioural design

To conclude, mere exposure provides people with a shortcut that lowers their cognitive overload in deciding something is valuable or not. By repeatedly exposing someone to something or someone, you can build liking, trust and memory. And it can help people to make better decisions and to shape desired behaviours. How’s that for making behavioural economics work in practice? Not bad, not bad at all.


Astrid Groenewegen
Co-founder SUE | Behavioural Design



Resources (in order of appearance):

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

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behavioural Design

Applied Behavioural Economics pt. 1 – Chunking

By | All, Behavioural Science

Or ‘How to break-down behaviour to make it easier to perform’.

Behavioural economics is fascinating. Understanding some of the fundamentals of human decision-making will give you far more control over successful outcomes of personal and professional goals than you might have ever expected. But how do you turn this science into practice? This is a blog series highlighting the best insights from behavioural economics translated into how to make them work for you daily. Behavioural economics applied. To help you make better decisions that will help you improve your wellbeing, work and society.

Behavioural psychology: The power of chunking

One thing we all want more of in life is simplicity. In fact, mostly, our brain loves simplicity. We all have a very ingenious decision-making system in between our ears that helps us make decisions with as little effort as possible. Even now, your brain is continuously working hard for you to do as little thinking as possible. Most of the choices we make are based on automatic shortcuts. To save brain bandwidth for the decisions, we do have to contemplate rationally.

This so-called two systems thinking, that was discovered by Kahneman and Tversky, is actually a lifesaver if you imagine an average person is making 35.000 choices a day. Varying from minor decisions, such as should I step to the right? To decisions that have a greater impact, such as should I hire this person? Making all these decisions consciously would go beyond our cognitive abilities, so we need our subconscious mind.

But the truth is, sometimes we want to be consciously aware and remember things. We want to have the capability to learn, for instance. And well, you need some conscious awareness for that. That’s where the technique of chunking can help you out. In Behavioural Design, a very important notion is the fact you can boost desired behaviour if you make the behaviour easier to perform. In our SUE | Intervention Model, this is referred to as your capability (can you perform the desired behaviour).

So, let’s get back to learning and remembering. How can we make it easier for you to learn and remember? If you take the way our brain operates as a starting point, we need to start at the notion that our brain loves simplicity. By chunking or grouping separate pieces of information into chunks, this is exactly what you will be doing. Let me give you an example. Read these three sentences once and then say them out loud by heart:

Remember far is to information easier
Pieces is divided into up it if
Our logical are head that patterns in

Quite hard, right? Now, try these three sentences:

Information is far easier to remember
If it is divided up into pieces
That are logical patterns in our head

I bet; this time it was no problem at all. Fact is, it was exactly the same information only represented in another way. Our brain is a pattern-making machine, as soon as we can discover patterns it is much easier to make decisions or to remember things. I read this very interesting book by David Epstein called Range. In one of the first chapters, he dives into what makes up for a savant. Those chess players or piano virtuosos that stun everyone from the age of 3 with their talent. You probably have heard of the 10.000-hour rule: you need to practice something for 10.000 hours to become really good at it. Only that way you can reach the savant or elite level.

Kahneman and Klein found this only holds true for domains that are characterized by predictable patterns and logic. Like playing golf, playing classical music or a game of chess: ‘There are rules, and boundaries and patterns repeat over and over, feedback is extremely accurate and usually very rapid’. Now, you probably don’t have the ambition or are a tat late age-wise, to become a savant, but still, something very interesting was discovered with savants that can be relevant to you and it has everything to do with chunking; The plot thickens George Villiers would say.

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Change in perception: you don’t need 10.000 hours.

It was often thought that next to the 10.000 hours of repetitive exercise, savants had another characteristic. Savants must have a photographic memory. A logical conclusion if you witness young children who play symphonies by heart or four-year-olds that beat chess players ten times their age with impressive high-pace gameplays. But the truth is, savants in the predictable domains are masters at chunking.

Several savants were put to the test by different researches. Epstein refers to an experiment National Geographic TV did with Susan Polgar, the world’s first female chess grandmaster; they printed a mid-game chess play with 28 pieces on the side of a truck. Susan glanced at the truck and then recreated the game flawlessly. When they printed a random play with fewer chess pieces on the truck, she could barely recreate the play. It lacked existing chess patterns. Chess players don’t have photographic memories and remember every single chess piece; they chunk meaningful pieces together that form familiar patterns. Chunking may seem like magic, but it comes from the patterns savants have locked into their memory in those 10.000-hour repetitive study. Interested to know more about how to optimise your learning experience? Here’s were you can read sone more on spaced repetition. A variety of chunking applied to learning.

Chunking is all about presenting information in a way that it is easier to process for people.

So, the good news is: you don’t need a photographic memory to remember things. Better news still, you don’t need to put in 10.000 hours to be a chunking master. The world we live in is often far less familiar and predictable than golf, chess or classical music. ‘Our rules of the game are often unclear or incomplete, there may or may not be repetitive patterns, and they may not be obvious, and feedback is often delayed, inaccurate or both’. So, focusing for 10.000 hours on patterns in daily life is less relevant.

Chunking can help people make sense of the complex world they live in.

You can use chunking to help someone make sense of what you are offering them or what you want them to do. But chunking is more than just providing someone with a logical pattern. If you chunk information or to do’s or goals, you are breaking-up a larger whole. Chess players don’t remember a whole game strategy; they remember parts of the tactics. So, when looking at behaviour:

Chunking can work as a way to break-up a harder to perform behaviour into smaller, manageable steps.


How to change habits using chunking

Some practical examples that may help you boost your sales, change the attitude in consumer behaviour or effectively design a customer experience or user experience. Let me start by telling you how to change habits using chunking: If you want someone to quit smoking, a sticky habit, that CAN be very difficult to change.

You can make it simpler by breaking up the quit-smoking-behaviour behaviour into chunks. The NHS has introduced a perfect example of this thinking. They help people stop smoking by not by focussing on quitting smoking at once but by helping someone step-by-step. First, you can apply for a free ‘stop smoking kit’. It contains things like nicotine patches and a squeezy toy to give you something in hand to replace your cigarette. But they guide you towards the end-goal of quitting smoking easily. By for example, first sticking on the patches and sending you motivational emails.


Visual: NHS


If you break down a goal into smaller steps, people feel more confident that they can reach the end-goal.

Therefore, chunking is also very effective in helping someone reach their goals. But also consider using chunking if you are trying to achieve a goal. Don’t focus on running the marathon at once, but start at 1K, 5K, 10K. You will get there in the end (and if not, running is just not your thing which I can relate to completely but that’s a different story).


How to improve sales conversion using chunking

Let’s check out some more examples of companies who do a good job adding chunking to their offering and who combine this technique from behavioural economics in marketing or advertising. The first example is the blogging platform Ghost which shows that chunking may help you improve your sales conversion and get you more online sales. Maybe you have ever heard of the ‘aha moment’ describing that point that people start to get value from a product and keep on using it. Ghost introduced a simple five-step process to guide users to the essential steps to get value out of the platform. These steps are laid out for users, and they see a satisfying green check mark and a strikethrough for tasks they’ve completed.

Behavioural economics chunking - Ghost 1

The only challenge with having someone takes steps on your website is that they have to be online to see the site. This was solved by Ghost by sending users who had left the online set-up process conditional emails depending on where they left off in the process.

Visuals: ghost.com


These emails gave clear guidance on how to finish the step. Eventually, they were able to boost the efficiency of their conversion rates with 370%, only by chunking the behaviour into smaller steps and guiding people through them.


How to shape behaviour using chunking

Another company who helps people develop good financial behaviour by chunking tasks is HelloWallet. They do this via a weekly Sunday email that contains just one small manageable financial task for users to focus on – perhaps merely setting up a holiday savings fund, and no more. HelloWallet points out that it takes just three minutes to set up, and by dividing up savings behaviour into smaller weekly chunks, people begin to develop better financial habits and are more likely to meet their goals. HelloWallet’s research shows that success in these small tasks builds people’s confidence and make them feel more able to tackle their finances.

Visual: HelloWallet


How chunking helps us remember things top of mind

Another upside of chunking is that our capability to receive and retain information improves. You probably have experienced it yourself: have you ever better remembered a phone number by chucking it? For instance, the SUE | Behavioural Design phone number is (+31)202234626. But I remember it by chunking it: 223 4626 (the country and area code are in my automatic brain already so I don’t have to chunk those). This is why our phone number is also displayed in chunks on our website: To make it easier for visitors to remember it.

Why chunking works psychologically is that the chunks are seen as one ‘unit’ of information.

So, instead of remembering all separate digits, I just have to remember four chunks. Making the cognitive steps smaller. There now maybe is a question that comes to your mind. Is there anything known about the optimal number of chunks? Well, this has been researched. Early behavioural research revealed that humans best recall seven pieces of information plus or minus two. However, more recent studies show that chunking is most effective when four to six chunks (or steps) are created.

Conclusion: chunking is applied behavioural design

To conclude, chunking is a practical user-centred design approach that helps people to make hard behaviour easier to do. By limiting steps or units of information, someone has to do or remember you help them lower their cognitive needs. At the same time, you boost their confidence, memory and capability to perform the desired behaviour. How’s that for making behavioural economics work in practice? Not bad, not bad at all.


Astrid Groenewegen
Co-founder SUE | Behavioural Design



Resources (in order of appearance):

Want to learn more?

Suppose you want to learn more about how influence works. In that case, you might want to consider joining our Behavioural Design Academy, our officially accredited educational institution that already trained 2500+ people from 40+ countries in applied Behavioural Design. Or book an in-company program or workshop for your team. In our top-notch training, we teach the Behavioural Design Method© and the Influence Framework©. Two powerful frames to make behavioural change happen in practice.

You can also hire SUE to help you to bring an innovative perspective on your product, service, policy or marketing. In a Behavioural Design Sprint, we help you shape choice and desired behaviours using a mix of behavioural psychology and creativity.

You can download the Academy brochure here, contact us here or subscribe to Behavioural Design Digest at the bottom of this page. This is our weekly newsletter in which we deconstruct how influence works in work, life and society.

Or maybe, you’re just curious about SUE | Behavioural Design. Here’s where you can read our backstory.

sue behavioural design

Nudging explained

By | Behavioural Science

Excerpt: In this post, we will highlight the main concepts from the work of Nobel prize winner Richard Thaler as explained in his bestselling book ‘Nudge.’ We will explain what nudging is all about, how it related to behavioural economics and how you can use it to influence people and help them make better choices.


Nudging means

The term nudging seems to be popping up everywhere nowadays. People are being nudged, nudge units are set-up within governments, and nudging in marketing seems to pick up in popularity. But what is nudging all about? What does nudging mean? And from which underlying science does it derive? And especially how does it help people make better choices? Questions that will all be answered in this article. To make your reading life easier, we’ve divided the article into several subsections, which you can jump to easily:

Nudging Theory and Behavioural Economics
Making choices: Choice architecture
Making better and healthy choices

Nudging theory and Behavioural Economics

Nudging comes from the field of behavioural economics. Although behavioural economics is a science that is studied for almost forty years, it was the book ‘Nudge’ written by Richard H. Thaler and Cass R. Sunstein in 2008 that put nudging on the map. In Nudge, Thaler and Sunstein propose us a new take on decision making, one that takes our humanness and all the inconsistent decisions we make as a given.


Behavioural economists, as opposed to traditional economists, take human irrationality as a starting point. The basic assumptions of behavioural economics are that people are making choices with:

  • Limited rationality
  • Limited willpower
  • Bounded self-interest

Traditional economics vs. behavioural economics

Whereas traditional economics see people as rational beings, who make decisions and do cost/benefit analyses to make a choice that is always in their best interest not letting their emotions cloud their judgments, and always thinking about the future. Behavioural economists overthrow this, as it doesn’t fit the actual behaviour of people. You see people choose mortgages they shouldn’t be taking. You see people overspent on their credit cards. There are stock bubbles. Where’s the rationality in that? We are humans whose decisions are driven by cognitive bias and sub-conscious mental shortcuts, as we explain in this post on Daniel Kahneman whose research laid the foundation of all behavioural economics.

In the book ‘Nudge’ is also explained that being human, we all are susceptible to various biases that can lead us to blunder. Our mistakes make us poorer and less healthy; we often make bad decisions involving education, personal finance, health care, mortgages and credit cards, the family, and even the planet itself.


The main concept of the book is that if you know how people think, you can design choice environments that make it easier for people to choose what is best for themselves, their families, and their society. It’s all about choice architecture. An important concept that we’ll explain in the next paragraph.

But before we dive deeper into choice architecture, it’s good to know that there lies a very important concept underneath the nudging theory. A concept introduced in the book called Libertarian Paternalism.

  • Libertarian = An individual’s right to choose
  • Paternalism = Do what you can do to improve the welfare of people. Point people in the right direction.

Definition of a nudge

The idea is to apply the techniques of the psychology of decision making and behavioural economics to improve decisions without limited choices. Or easier put, help people make better choices for themselves without restricting their freedom of choice. But by nudging them. Which brings us to the definition of a nudge. As Thaler describes it himself a nudge is any small feature in the environment that attracts our attention and alters our behaviour.

You can nudge for good, or you can nudge for evil. Their book strongly focuses on the first, as the subtitle of their book states: improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness. And we as a company take a positive take on behavioural psychology ourselves as we strongly live by our mission to unlock the power of behavioural psychology to nudge people into making positive choices in work, life, and play. But how do you achieve this goal? That’s what the next section is all about: how to help people make better and healthy choices.

Making choices: choice architecture

If you want to help people making better decisions, you can achieve this with better choice architecture. But what is a choice architecture? Anyone who designs the environment in which people make choices is a choice architect. There’s choice architecture all around you. Think about menus, curriculums, or store layouts that decide how you walk inside a store (you probably all have been in an Ikea once, there it’s obvious how choice architects have designed the way you cruise the Scandinavian furniture epicenter).

A choice architect makes choices about how to present information or an environment for you.  Although nudging is all about maintaining people’s freedom of choice, choice architecture isn’t neutral. You can compare it to regular architecture; it’s not possible to design regular neutral architecture. Think about the design of the building you’re probably in right now: it’s not possible to have designed that building completely neutral. It had to have doors, stairs, etc.

Choice architecture is not neutral

The same goes for choice architecture, it affects how people make choices, and you have to make a choice yourself on how you present a choice. Richard Thaler often refers to the example of cafeteria meal planning. They found out that the way food was presented to kids in a school cafeteria effected what they would eat for lunch. The first choice presented to them was the prevalent choice. Someone responsible for the cafeteria then has several options:

  • Put the healthy options first, to promote more healthy eating behaviour
  • Start with the unhealthy options, to make kids more fat (could be he/she has a chubby kid and wants other kids to gain weight too, to stop the bullying)
  • Go for the most profitable as first option, to make the finance director happy
  • Present the food randomly, which is also a choice (confusing, but a choice)

The point is: you always have to make a choice. Choice architecture is not neutral. But some designs are better than others. Why not do it in a way that makes people feel better? That’s what nudging is all about, and which is the theme of the book ‘Nudge’ to help people towards making better choices.

Making better and healthy choices

In the book ‘Nudge’ they explain six principles of good choice architecture that will help people make better and healthy choices:

  • Incentives

    People make better decisions if you provide the right people with the right incentives. This goes beyond monetary and material incentives, but also includes psychological benefits (eg peace of mind).

  • Understand mappings

    A warm plea is made for more disclosure to help people make better decisions. In the book referred to as RECAP: Record, Evaluate, and Compare Alternative Prices. Make it easier for customers to compare what they are truly paying for, and ensure that all hidden fees are exposed.

  • Defaults

    Defaults what happens if we do nothing. Think about your screensaver. Even if you do nothing it will activate. Defaults are sticky, as inertia rules in all humans. We tend to stick to the automatic choice that’s made for us. We for example hardly ever change factory settings on our phone. In Nudge an example is given about joining a retirement savings plan. If the default is to join, most people do join. If you have to actively choose to join only 30% does so.

  • Give feedback

    A good way to help humans improve their decision making is to provide feedback. A good example is the Ambient Orb as developed by Clive Thompson that helped people save energy. Electricity isn’t visible, the ambient orb gives feedback on how well you’re doing by changing colour. Another example of giving feedback is paint that is pink when you apply it, but turns white within an hour. People often paint white ceilings white again, and it’s hard to see if you missed a spot. By making the paint pink, it gives you immediate feedback on what is left to paint.

ambient orb

nudging ambient orb

nudging paint

Magic white paint

  • Expect error

    Expect people to make mistakes and design for it. A very good example of libertarian paternalism that actually saves lives are the ‘look right’ signs in London streets. You can still watch the wrong way, but you’re directed to look the right way.

look right London

nudging look right

  • Structure complex choices
    When there’s an overload on choice, people tend to find ways to simplify them and break them down. Good choice architecture will find ways to make this more evident for people. An example cited was the choice of paint. Instead of using words like “Roasted Sesame Seed” or “Kansas Grain,” consider arranging similar colour themes next to each other. This could help people to choose the right shades and hues.


You could recap the Nudge theory like this:

  1. Humans are imperfect we can use all the help we can get
  2. It’s possible to improve choices without restricting options
  3. Don’t use bans and mandates, just nudge.

If you want to hear Richard Thaler explain the basic concept of nudging himself, take a look at this video. It’s 18 minutes.

Would you like to learn more?

If you want to master the science of influence yourself, you could consider enrolling in our two-day course Behavioural Design at our SUE | Behavioural Design Academy. You can download the Academy brochure. Or maybe you currently have a challenge in which you want to influence choice or change behaviour. Please, take a look at our Behavioural Design Sprint. It might be the answer you’re looking for.

Or could be you just would like to get to know us a little better. We happily introduce ourselves here.