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Nudging For Not Just Now

Ross E. O'Hara

Editor's Note: There’s a lot of chatter in the behavioral science community about issues impacting the future of the field. Some is very inside baseball – “What about replicability?” – some applies well beyond our work – “What is ethical?” – and some cuts right to the core of what we’re trying to accomplish – “How do we create long-term change?” It’s that last, important question, which Ross tackles here.

I find his perspective – from the world of education – to be uniquely informative. He works with people in what are traditionally considered the formative years of their lives, but behavioral science suggests everyone, at every age, can be re-formed. I’m always up for learning something new, but I’m not so sure about the rest of you. (Yes, that is a challenge.)

“Give a man a fish, and he eats for a day. Teach a man to fish, and he eats for a lifetime.”

But what if he doesn’t like to fish? 

We behavioral scientists, practitioners and fans are often preoccupied with how “nudging” can move people to act. Read articles on this site and elsewhere, and you’ll find examples of nudging people to reduce energy consumption, wash their car or use apps more often. I see the same efforts in my work in higher education, as colleges and universities nudge students to complete tasks like submitting their financial aid forms, visiting a tutoring center and registering for courses. 

But in most cases, we’re not interested in getting a person to do something once or twice — we want to create long-term behavioral change. Nudging people to adopt new habits has tended to rely on one of two models: 

  • Light bulb moments: If we get our friend to go fishing just one time, he will realize how enjoyable and valuable this skill is and go on fishing without us in perpetuity.
  • Classical conditioning: If we nudge our friend to go fishing over and over, eventually he’ll go fishing on his own out of mindless habit, and we can stop nudging him. 

There are serious flaws to both models, as evidenced by the field’s limited success in creating long-term change. Whether we’re nudging for business, education, finance, conservation or public health, long-term change is perhaps still the great enigma of behavioral science. If we’re going to get new behaviors to truly stick, we must consider the psychology of motivation and design nudges that reshape how people think about a behavior before they’re even induced into doing it.  

Whether we’re nudging for business, education, finance, conservation or public health, long-term change is perhaps still the great enigma of behavioral science. 

Wise Interventions

Stanford psychologist Gregory Walton coined the term “wise intervention” to describe best practices for leveraging behavioral science to change people’s long-term behavior. According to Dr. Walton, a wise intervention has two key components: precision and recursion. Although examples of wise interventions can be found in many arenas, some of the most convincing have come from research in education.  

First, a wise intervention targets the precise psychological mechanism underlying someone’s behavior. For example, research by NYU psychologist Joshua Aronson showed that college students earned better GPAs after writing letters that told middle-schoolers that intelligence is malleable (a “growth mindset”). Dr. Aronson and colleagues theorized that the reason why some college students — especially African-American students — underperform is not because they are unintelligent, unprepared or unwilling to put in the work, but because they believe that their aptitude for certain subjects cannot improve. While the researchers could have nudged students toward specific behaviors, like studying more or visiting a tutor, they made gains by targeting students’ attitudes toward education, which could impact a constellation of positive academic behaviors and outcomes. 

A wise intervention has two key components: precision and recursion. 

The second key component is that wise interventions are recursive, meaning their effects snowball over time. In the above example, not only did changes in students’ growth mindsets persist over the rest of the academic year, they grew stronger among African-American students. As these students approached their courses with a growth mindset, they may have studied more, asked more questions in class, or seen a tutor, all of which would help to improve their grades. Better grades, in turn, would reinforce the idea that intelligence is malleable. It’s this recursion that makes a wise intervention so powerful: instead of relying on habit to take hold, the nudge is incrementally and fundamentally changing how people think about themselves and their environment. 

Social Proof

As another example familiar to many readers, social proof is a classic nudge used to get people to follow other people’s behavior. Businesses leverage social proof in advertising all the time, enticing customers to buy “America’s most popular truck brand” or to go see the “#1 Movie In America!” Public health campaigns inform young people that not drinking or smoking actually puts them in the majority. And messaging to save the environment has used social proof to encourage people to recycle, reduce water use and save energy.  

But social proof can do much more than get someone to follow behind — it can be a “wise intervention” that changes attitudes. As demonstrated in a study by Dr. Walton and fellow psychologist Geoffrey Cohen, first-year Stanford students were given social proof in the form of vignettes wherein upper-level students discussed their struggles and accomplishments at Stanford. The message conveyed by these vignettes, however, was specifically tailored to change students’ perspective about challenges, namely to make them believe that trials they were facing as freshmen were normal and would pass. Changing this specific attitude was expected to alter students’ entire narrative around college and make them resilient in the face of challenge rather than apt to quit. Students who received these messages — particularly African-American students — showed improvements in their overall GPA that persisted throughout their college careers. 

Why aren’t people already behaving this way? And how can I change people’s motivation to engage in this behavior?  

Nudge Wisely

We can’t end someone’s hunger by nudging them to go fishing every day. Instead, consider how to nudge their underlying beliefs about fishing if you want to see them eat for a lifetime.  

In other words, when you want to nudge people to behave in a specific way, ask yourself: Why aren’t people already behaving this way? And how can I change people’s motivation to engage in this behavior? These questions will not only lead you to choose the best levers for nudging people’s behavior but will also help you to engender long-term change that persists well after your nudges cease.

Ross E. O'Hara


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