Every day, you make important choices – about whether to feast on fries or take a brisk walk, whether to spend or save your paycheck, whether to buy the sustainable option or the disposable plastic one.
Life is made up of countless decisions. The idea of nudging people in the right direction, instead of relying on their internal motivation, has gained traction over the last decade.
In general, nudging involves gently coaxing someone into a decision or behavior. The perfect nudge is one that results in the desired decision or behavior without the person recognizing any external influence.
Think of employees being automatically enrolled in retirement savings programs. Workers who must opt out, instead of needing to opt in, participate more in retirement savings. Or picture those little cards in hotel bathrooms encouraging people to reuse their towels by stating that most hotel guests do, instead of appealing to the guests’ social responsibility.
In these and countless similar situations, people feel in control, but were nudged to prefer one option over the other.
So how does all this nudging work within the mind? As someone who studies consumer decision-making, I can tell you: It’s complicated.
You’re of two (or more) minds
Neuroscientists, starting with pioneers like Antonio Damasio, have shown that the brain is not like a computer where complex programs deliver optimal solutions. In fact, the mind seems to involve many relatively simple systems, some inside the head and some distributed throughout the body.
These systems are not always in agreement. Some systems are selfish and shortsighted, some care about relationships with others and some prioritize transcendent things such as God and the future of humanity. In addition, people aren’t equally conscious of each mechanism, so that sometimes you make decisions carefully and thoughtfully and other times you make them fast and intuitively.