Sometimes All You Need Is a ‘Nudge’

By Brian McGowan, Ph.D.

If you pay close attention to the artwork on the cover of Richard Thaler and Cass Sunstein’s book “Nudge: Improving Decisions About Health, Wealth and Happiness,” you can get a good sense of what the book is all about. It is subtle: The trunk of an adult elephant pushes up against the backside of a young elephant. You might imagine that the elder pachyderm is directing its offspring to move forward or take some action.

A “nudge,” as the authors describe it, is all about the structure, guidance or encouragement that may be critical to simplify and facilitate logical, rational (but not always obvious) decisions. Importantly, a nudge is not a mandate; it is not about removing choices. It is about positioning choices in such a way that a person is better able to understand the big picture and take the action that is in their best interest, even when they may not be able to fully balance all the facts at hand. Simply put, a nudge is a device that may be used to ensure that the proper choice is made.

First published in 2008, the book is based on research evolved for several years before that, and “Nudge” brought this research to the mainstream. By 2010, a field of behavioral science — Nudge Science — had emerged, framed by the idea that humans are not always able to properly balance long-term pros and cons against short-term pros and cons; in other words, we have a tendency to be blinded by biases and to behave irrationally. As a result, in many situations, human decision-making and behavior would be improved through the effective design of nudges.

“Nudge” has, in many ways, forever changed my life — both personally and professionally. For example, the notion of my “Learning Actions Research” and the “Learning Actions Model” itself, would not exist without understanding the need for and value of nudges — nor would ArcheMedX. If we understand learning as a complex set of decisions and actions, then it becomes quite obvious how we might connect the dots.

One of the most important books I have ever read, “Nudge” teaches critical lessons about the universal challenges we each face when it comes to rational thinking, decision-making and behavioral change; it provides hundreds of examples of nudges that have addressed these challenges.

To be fair, there is one area that “Nudge” doesn’t explicitly address: education. But I would suggest that is our job. Once you have read the book, I hope you will begin to immediately see how our community can — and must — apply this science. I look forward to seeing nudges woven into the educational interventions that we each plan, develop and deliver.

Find "Nudge" and other Almanac-reviewed titles in the Alliance's Amazon store

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