A Subtle Suggestion May Be More Powerful Than Direct Instruction

Indirectly suggesting that someone should do something may be more effective than flat-out telling them what to do. This idea is called the Nudge Theory.

Example of a nudge: a fake plastic housefly in the men's public toilet urinals. After adding the fly, spillage declined 80 percent. It turns out that if you give men a target, they can’t help but aim at it.

How It Works

One friend tells you to change your shirt. Another friend says, "You know that green shirt you have? You look great in that shirt." Who's more convincing? If you're reaching for that green shirt, you've been affected by Nudge Theory.

According to this concept, subtle suggestions are much more effective at influencing behavior than direct instruction. For example, telling someone to reduce their energy consumption would be less effective than showing them that their energy consumption is much higher than their neighbors'. The idea behind this theory is that direct instruction can be met with frustration, and could prompt someone to behave in a way that is the opposite of what was intended.

Proponents of direct communication say that "nudging" is mental manipulation. Is it unethical? As reported by The Guardian, "tiny tweaks [nudges] in government communication may increase the success rates of ethnic minority applicants to join the police; can help people to take vital medications; or pay their taxes on time."

But what about tricksters using nudges for selfish reasons? For example, if you give someone a larger bowl and larger spoon, they will eat more ice cream, according to a study. While that's in the best interest of ice cream sellers, it's not quite the best thing for your health.

Steer Toward Tomorrow

Making wise, informed decisions is always relevant. As the Economist reports, "The idea of nudging is based on research that shows it is possible to steer people towards better decisions by presenting choices in different ways." But that's only if the Nudge Theory is used for good, and not for evil. (Gulp.)

Editors' Picks: Our Favorite About Influence

An Introduction To Thaler And Sunstein's Nudge

Here's a great introduction to Nudge, including a psychology analysis.

An Introduction To Behavioral Economics

Nudge Theory is grounded in behavioral economics.

How To Know If You Are Being Manipulated

10 ways that master manipulators get into your head.

Written by Curiosity Staff April 14, 2016

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