The art of the nudge

If you want to nudge someone in the right direction psychologically, you need to understand what makes them tick. Bo van Grinsven and her team are helping the scale-ups in TFI’s accelerator programme to master these crucial skills. How? By getting them to do the last thing they would have expected at this stage: slow down.
Posted on June 24, 2021

Why don’t you start by telling us a little about yourself and what you do.

I work as a consultant for Behavioral Insights Company, which I founded. We’re a bunch of behavioural scientists on a mission to help businesses apply behavioural techniques to influence and change people’s behaviour for the better. We advise on everything that involves human behaviour, and our clients range from financial service providers to a big construction company where we influence workers to follow safety rules.

What do you like the most about your work?

I think it’s really cool that almost everything people do can be traced back to human behaviour. We can all identify with certain patterns and pitfalls in how we act.

Take exercise, for instance. Let’s say you want to work out three times a week. That goes great at first, and then suddenly you stop for no particular reason. You’re still motivated, but you just don’t do it. Then you come up with a bunch of random excuses.

It just makes no sense. Why? Because these actions are driven by our subconscious.

You joined TFI’s scale-up track to help these new businesses grow and apply different techniques to nudge users in the right direction. So what does nudging mean?

Nudging is a broad concept. To me, it means finding ways to change people’s behaviour without them being conscious of it.

Look at it this way: entrepreneurs are rational thinkers. They can come up with the smartest products that would make perfect sense for people to use. Then they launch their product and they’re puzzled when it fails to make any real impact or when people don’t use the product in the way intended. So they start looking for a rational explanation. But the real reason is often emotional – not rational at all. What drives these customers, and what barriers do they perceive? And how can we influence that behaviour and turn it in the desired direction? That’s what nudging is about.

Could you give an example?

Suppose we show a picture of kids to construction workers before they enter a building site. Someone with kids at home will put on their hard hat to stay safe for their kids’ sake. Someone without kids would not respond to that stimulus.

Ideally you’d have a separate nudge for workers with and without kids – not very practical for a building site, though. This is easier in digital environments because apps can be created to identify and target different kinds of users and because we can learn and adapt faster online.

What’s the science behind nudging?

The best nudges are the ones that work without us thinking about them. We process things in the brain with two systems: automatic (or unconscious) and conscious. Conscious thought requires a lot of cognitive capacity. And it’s limited. If I want to apply a nudge, it’s hard for me to know how much thinking you’ve done so far today and how much more you can handle. Instead, we need to focus on the unconscious system so the person doesn’t need to think actively about what we want them to do. To me, that’s the real added value of a nudge: helping people to make the right decision while using as little cognitive capacity as possible.

What are the main do’s and don’ts of nudging?

The biggest mistake is to think that a nudge is one-size-fits-all. The typical fear-of-missing-out angle taken by a hotel booking website obviously would not work for a mortgage product. The nudge needs to be tailored to the individual’s mindset, context and urgency.

That brings us to the biggest must: testing. You always need to test your nudge to allow for unexpected results. After all, we’re talking about human behaviour here, which is traditionally irrational. It’s predictable in a certain sense, but we all approach things differently.

And I have some moral don’ts: I won’t help companies develop nudges for advertising towards children – like for sweets – or for the tobacco industry. I don’t want to be involved in nudges that encourage unhealthy behaviour.

How do you help TFI’s scale-ups?

Strange as it may seem, I help by slowing them down. Scale-ups are always in such a hurry, always hard at work. They’re excited about their product or service and can’t wait to get to market.

So I’m here to make them take a breather and think. Who are you really doing this for and what do you seek to accomplish?

The goal is to define the target behaviour, so they know what to change or influence in their users. Once that’s sorted, I take them deeper into the drivers and barriers. I want them to understand that these may vary for different people in their target audience. Which nudges are suitable for that? And how can we develop and test those?

After that, they’re free to pick up the pace again, but this time in the knowledge that they’ll not only be speeding up and scaling up but also living up to their full potential.

Follow Bo van Grinsven and Behavioural Insights Company