By Mike Hughes, Behavioural Researcher at Ogilvy Change

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Last month the UK’s competition watchdog announced an investigation into how comparison travel and booking websites gather and present their results.

Included in the inquiry is how sites generate the dynamic, often time pressured nudges increasingly used during online transactions. ‘XX users are viewing this room’, ‘2 seats left at this price’ have at their heart behavioural principles; social norms, scarcity and loss aversion, all aimed to convert interest into sale.

The report puts a welcome spotlight on such tactics where transparency is paramount for customer confidence. Yet focus in this area perhaps also taps into wider cynicism from users around their use, especially when they start to feel ‘rushed’ into making a decision. Which leads to a bigger question for behavioural intervention designers: do some nudges have a shelf-life?

One of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s earliest and simplest examples of behavioural intervention design was changing the default option to ‘opt-out’ (i.e. automatic enrolment) in pension scheme use and organ donation. Indeed, it has since been adapted with great success. In the UK alone membership of private sector pension schemes jumped from 2.7 million to 7.7 million in 2016.

However, the wide-scale use of defaults in other areas such as charitable donations sees that their impact may be diminishing. A recent study by Jung suggests that opt-out defaults are now viewed negatively by users, which ultimately translates into reduced efficacy.

To add to the debate, behavioural economist George Loewenstein investigated how the impact of defaults were effected when people were made aware of them. The research team found that despite warning people that they were to be nudged, or informing them after the fact and allowing them to change their decisions, the effectiveness of the default option was not significantly reduced.

So is this just about scale? When users react negatively to nudges themselves, is it because their sheer scale turns them into a collective shove? When nudges can be applied simultaneously (for instance in digital contexts) can the desire to make them as effective as possible create a poor user interface on the whole?

As psychological frameworks are increasingly used by systems and service designers to guide people to intended behaviours, awareness of the wider user experience is crucial to ensure that bombarding people with nudges doesn’t reduce their impact as a whole.

The relatively recent application of behavioural interventions within policy and marketing (the term ‘nudge’ was coined in just 2008) sees that much more longitudinal study is needed to test how we relate and respond to nudges over time. Similarly, replication of successful nudges are needed to ensure the reputation of behavioural science is upheld through grounded empirical evidence.

So in short, maybe we humans are constantly adapting to the behavioural interventions we come into contact with, and perhaps we can’t always be nudged as easily as some would like. Which makes the job for behavioural intervention designers both continually challenging and rewarding.


Jung, J. Y., & Mellers, B. A. (2016). American attitudes toward nudges. Judgment and Decision Making, 
Loewenstein, G., et al (2015) Warning: You are about to be nudged