The Power of Nudging

Governments mostly make use of information campaigns or financial incentives to stimulate sustainable consumption. These traditional instruments do not always work effectively. Campaigns offer information and strong arguments and people assume that these lead to behaviour change by themselves. Recent research shows the possibilities for social norms strategies or ‘nudging’.

For the Sustainability Department in the Ministry of Infrastructure and Environment, CREM did research into the role of the government in stimulating sustainable consumption. This role is difficult to determine because consumer behaviour is dependant on many different factors.

Rational vs Unconscious

Research has actually shown that consumers often do not rationally consider all information and arguments when making a decision. Therefore, consumers often make decisions on the basis of automatic and superficial decision strategies. You can see this, for example, in car owners who are unwilling to exchange their old cars for new, energy-saving models. The literature study showed that these unconscious processes were at least as influential as rational processes.

Behaviour according to Social Norms

An experiment at the University of New Mexico showed that consumers chose twice as many fruits and vegetables when their shopping carts had a separate fruit-and-vegetable section. The icon on the shopping cart gave people the unconscious idea that they needed to buy fruits and vegetables; by having half the cart “reserved” for fruits and vegetables, an unconscious social norm was communicated, that it was normal for people to buy that quantity of them.

‘Do what others do’

For a practical test, stickers in train station kiosks showed a photo of fruit with the text “more and more other train travellers are doing this too.” This information about the behaviour of their group members resulted in more sales of fruit at the specified kiosks. These examples show that government policies can be more efficient and more effective through using behaviour strategies such as choice architecture and nudging.

DownloadSustainable Consumer Behaviour and the Role of the Government (only in Dutch) may 2013

More info: Wijnand Broer