Technology and Nudges: The Implications of Driving Change

Nudges are, rightfully, having a moment in the sun. Ever since the publication of Nudge: Improving Decisions about Health, Wealth, and Happiness in 2008 – the influential book written by Richard Thaler, a Nobel Laureate, and his co-author Cass Sunstein – the concept of using nudges to encourage positive behaviors has been tested and analyzed by a myriad of behavioral science researchers, including our consultants at OrgVitality. Most scientists agree: nudges work.

Some nudges promote healthy behaviors, such as corporations that automatically enroll employees in a 401K program, requiring them to opt-out rather than opt-in, or workplace cafeterias that put the healthy food at eye level while stashing the less healthy alternatives off to the side. Other nudges have been criticized as manipulative for trying to get workers to stay on the job longer. The use of nudges has always raised ethical and privacy questions, and it’s critical to deploy them in thoughtful ways that don’t cause any harm.

Although Nudge was published eleven years ago, we’ve seen a rapid development of new technologies in the last 12 months. As our data gets bigger, our devices get smarter and nudgier. Insights from artificial intelligence are now incorporated into various technologies. Chances are, you’ve been nudged by technology in some way today, whether it’s your Fitbit urging you to walk or your Netflix account automatically starting the next episode of a show. At OrgVitality, we have developed our own suite of tools based on this research to help our clients collect the right feedback and drive meaningful change.

The findings from big data are powerful, and nudges can be effective in changing behaviors. But nudges are certainly not a magic bullet. People can be remarkably resistant to new information or sustained change, failing to live up to their own good intentions to improve. FitBits, or other activity trackers, show mixed results. People habituate to continuous data or persistent feedback, shutting out the nudges as nagging reminders of what they are not achieving. In the end, nudges help, but people have to really want to change. It still takes work.

Adding machine learning or AI technology into the mix doesn’t eliminate the need for a human touch. Computer generated nudges risk missing some critical issues. Amazon got some heat for developing wristbands that track workers’ movements and nudge them to be more effective. Three Square Market, a technology company based in Wisconsin, implants chips in any employee willing to get one; while the chips are currently used to swipe into offices or pay for food at the cafeteria, they could conceivably be used to track movements or time breaks as well.

So where does this leave organizations looking to use nudges to help drive meaningful change? Use the nudges intelligently; use it to drive the same values-based behaviors you are already working towards, but at scale. Work with your consultants to understand what powers your nudges – and learn what human elements are at play. Solicit feedback from the employees who have been nudged. Continually evaluate these tools and their effectiveness. These tools have great potential, as long as they’re used ethically and thoughtfully.

Dr. Scott Brooks is a partner and vice president at OrgVitality, as well as the co-author of Creating the Vital Organization: Balancing Short-Term Profits with Long-Term Success. With over twenty-five years of experience in the industry, he consults with organizations and individuals to drive strategic change based on surveys, HR metrics, and research that illuminates the connections between leadership, operations, customer loyalty, and business results. Interested in learning more? Contact Dr. Brooks directly, or check out our recent webinar, Artificial Intelligence: A Primer for HR.