Does nudging have a place in politics? How decision-making contexts inevitably influence our behavior

Why is the influence of contexts on decisions relevant for effective and citizen-centered policy making? Psychologist Dr. Mario Herberz explains.

Note: This article was already reviewed and is published in the German version of In-Mind.

If you have ever accepted the pre-checked collection of cookies when accessing a website, you have already been nudged. Nudging generally describes measures that predictably influence people's behavior without prohibiting any options or creating financial incentives. Especially since the publication of the book Nudging - Improving decisions about health, wealth, and happiness (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008), this approach to behavior change has received a great deal of attention worldwide. It already complements conventional approaches based on financial incentives in many areas of society and politics, for example in the fight against poverty and climate change. In contrast to coercion and prohibitions, nudging preserves a person's freedom of choice. Its main goal is to assist people in making better decisions as judged by themselves (Thaler, 2018).

What does nudging look like in everyday life?

Preselection is a popular form of nudging. Preselection is when a decision option is preselected, as in the initial example of accepting the collection of website cookies. If no other option is actively selected, the preselected option comes into effect. People generally tend to choose the preselected option. For example, if the green electricity tariff is preselected when switching electricity providers, significantly more study participants chose this tariff than if a conventional brown electricity tariff was preselected. Similar results were found in studies on the number of registered organ donors and people who paid into a private pension scheme (Jachimowicz et al., 2019).

Another nudge is social norms, which communicate socially prevailing or accepted behaviors. Most people behave in such a way that their behavior is in line with the norms of their social environment or society. If one draws a person's attention to the deviation of their behavior from a social norm, they are likely to correct their behavior so to be more in line with the social norm. For example, hotel guests use their towels more often when they are told that other hotel guests do the same, and students show less abusive alcohol consumption when they are informed that the majority of their peers do not drink excessively (Münscher et al., 2016).

Framing is another nudge. Framing describes the presentation the same information in a different but equivalent way. For example, people are more likely to agree to the approval of a drug if it promises to prevent a certain number of deaths than if it promises to save the same number of lives (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981). Moreover, patients are more likely to get vaccinated against the flu when the vaccination dose is “reserved for them personally” compared to a reminder without this personalization, possibly to avoid losing the reservation (Milkman et al., 2021). The success of these framings can be attributed to the fact that people are generally more sensitive to avoiding losses than to making gains (Tversky & Kahneman, 1981).

Picture 1. Nudging: a nudge, but who decides the direction?

Advantages and disadvantages of heuristic decision-making

The idea of nudging arose from the realization that people often rely on intuitive rules of thumb to take decisions, so-called heuristics (Kahneman et al., 1982). These usually base a decision on the response to a simpler question instead of a more difficult or complex one. For example: "If the bottle of wine is the second-cheapest that the supermarket has on offer, I will buy it" is a heuristic. The decision “Which bottle should I bring to tonight’s dinner invitation?” is determined solely by the bottle’s price rank. Other factors that could be integrated into the decision to get the best value for money are ignored. The year of production (Was the year of the wine an overall good year for producing tasty wine?), place of production (From which region is the wine?), and its way of production (Is it organic? Is it natural wine?) are not included in the decision in this example.

Relying on heuristics is helpful and unavoidable in many everyday decisions. It enables us to make surprisingly good decisions under time pressure and distraction, when weighing up the pros and cons is not even possible. For example, doctors usually make good and correct decisions under time pressure based on their experience. Even laypeople can use simple rules of thumb such as "everything that cools and heats needs a lot of electricity" to better estimate the energy consumption of household appliances (Marghetis et al., 2019).

Picture 2. Heuristic decisions: Usually a good choice!

On the other hand, research in recent decades has also shown that heuristic decision-making is not always for our own good. The use of heuristics can lead to systematic distortions in our behavior (Kahneman et al., 1982). For example, people have an increased preference for options that will soon no longer be available or even forbidden (Brehm & Brehm, 2013). For example, the desire for buying a product is particularly great when it is only temporarily on offer, as is often the case in fashion. The normal shopping behavior is therefore distorted by the threat of restricting people’s freedom of choice.

Our risk assessment can be similarly distorted. People often fall back on their imagination when they need to assess the likelihood of exposing themselves to a potential risk or disaster. The ease with which a disaster can be imagined often carries more weight than its actual probability of occurrence. As a result, the high risks of common behaviors such as drunk driving are often underestimated while the low risks of dramatic events such as crashing in an airplane are overestimated (Gigerenzer, 2004).

Another negative example is selective search for information. People tend to search more for evidence that confirms their ideas and beliefs. In contrast, information tends to be ignored if it contradicts existing beliefs (Hart et al., 2009). For example, people are more likely to use social networks and consume media that share their beliefs. This can lead to the hardening of beliefs, for example stereotypes about foreigners, and the formation of polarized groups, such as supporters of conspiracy theories.

How the context influences heuristic decision-making

Whether heuristic decisions lead to favorable or unfavorable outcomes depends on the choice architecture surrounding a decision. Choice architecture describes all features of a decision context that influence a behavior (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). This includes, for example, the subjective outcomes of a decision, the extent to which information relevant to the decision is highlighted and the number and arrangement of available choice options (Münscher et al., 2016). In general, contextual influences have a greater impact on heuristic decision-making than on deliberative, analytical decision-making (Thaler & Sunstein 2008). To adequately assess the usefulness of nudging, it is particularly important to remind ourselves that there is no decision without choice architecture - just as there is no building without architecture.

Picture 3. Every decision is made in a context, the choice architecture.

Use nudging to make policymaking fairer and more effective

Becoming aware of the inevitable influence of the decision-making context on behavior is an important opportunity to scrutinize existing influences on our behavior. Many features of the decision-making contexts around us already have an influence on our behavior without targeted nudging. For example, preselection such as automatic registration for a newsletter when making an online purchase are often misused by companies to retain customers. But also forms designed by public institutions are often designed in such a way that they disadvantage parts of the population by making access to their civil rights unreasonably difficult (Thaler, 2018). This insight has for example been used to redesign the content of court summons letters in New York City. The focus of the letter was changed from listing impending penalties for missing the court date to providing simple and clear instructions on how to get to the court. As a result, fewer summoned persons missed their court date and thus avoided additional penalties while also reducing public expenses (Fishbane et al., 2020).Picture 4. Awareness of the influence of nudging can increase the effectiveness of policy.

Nudging can also be used to implement political goals more effectively (Thaler & Sunstein, 2008). Political goals are often formulated in laws that leave their specific implementation open. However, whether a law achieves its goal depends on precisely the way it’s implemented, as this determines the influence of the decision-making context on behavior. For example, prohibiting the theft of petrified wood in an American national park turned out to be insufficient. Visitors continued to take the wood despite the prohibition. However, when the social norm was communicated that most previous visitors did not steal anything and that this was the right thing to do, the number of thefts could be successfully reduced (Cialdini et al., 2006).

Nudging: manipulation and therefore a no-go?

In most countries, nudging enjoys great popularity among the population and politicians as a supplement to classic approaches of behavior change such as financial incentives and punishments (Sunstein et al., 2019). However, the approach has also been criticized. For example, critics complain that the observation of distorted risk perception and decision-making in research are too often attributed to people behaving irrationally. Alternative explanations to these observations such as artificial laboratory settings, particularly in experimental psychological research, are too rarely considered. In real life, heuristic decision-making could therefore be less prone to producing detrimental biases, which would reduce the potential benefits of nudging (Gigerenzer 2018). Other critics point out that political decision-makers could use nudging to guide the behavior of citizens and thus decide what is good for them in a paternalistic way. Advocates of complementary approaches therefore propose to focus on strengthening individual decision-making competencies in a targeted manner to address decision biases (Gigerenzer 2018; Herzog & Hertwig, 2019).


In order to effectively achieve political and societal goals, it is essential to become aware of the influences of choice architecture on behavior and to consider nudging as a component of existing and future policies. In some countries such as the UK the integration of this approach by policymakers is already quite advanced. However, as far as the broad, worldwide recognition and integration of behavioral science into policy-making is concerned, these advancements still do not reach their full potential. Awareness about the contextual influence on our behavior still needs to be raised so that policymakers can tackle today’s challenges with the full range of tools at their disposal.


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