Nudging – a well-intentioned push or mean manipulation?

02 September 2019
Article written by Annika Lagoni

Nudging is the new black within organisational behavior design. It has been celebrated as a method of intervention that, among other things, helps implement change quickly and efficiently. It is often referred to as a ‘loving push in the right direction’, which helps people make the choices that are in their best interests – without them even realising it.

And yes. Nudging CAN be quite effective. But many will argue that it is not always just a ‘loving push’. If done incorrectly, nudging can take the shape of manipulation and be directly damaging. Thus, when you are trying to influence other people’s behavior, it is a serious matter that requires for you to act professionally and responsibly – and not least be able to asses when it is ethically sound.

Far from innocent 

Nudging is about how we through a better ‘choice architecture’ – a term used when indirectly changing people’s decisions in a predictable way – can help people make the choice they really want to make. The choices we, as autonomous, rational people, would like to make, but which our surroundings, temptations and unconscious irrationality refrain us from.

Advocates of nudging do not believe that it is a matter of manipulation as long as you, as a choice architect, do not deprive man of any choice. After all, it is all about helping them make the best possible decisions. That is, the ones they would have made themselves if they could assess the long-term consequences. For example, by making them choose fruit over cake provided that they want to live healthy.

But doesn’t nudging easily become a slippery slope where less noble intentions can lead to more or less appropriate manipulation? Because when organisations and public institutions use nudging to push people in one direction or another, it can never be innocent or unpolitical. At least according to the Danish nudging expert, Pelle Guldborg Hansen.

When is nudging manipulation ?

Nudging is neither “a loving push we get without noticing it” nor a ‘manipulative, ethical approach to behavior change’. It is a science, based on behavioral economics, cognitive psychology and social psychology. And it requires a great deal of insight into how human beings make decisions in order to nudge properly – and ethically justifiable.

But is nudging thus manipulation? Yes. Sometimes it is.

The nudging experts, Pelle Guldborg Hansen and Andreas Maaløe Jespsersen, have created a framework to assess whether or not a nudge is ethically justifiable. For nudging to be ethically irresponsible manipulation requires two things:

  1. The nudge is non-transparent, so that the individual does not discover that it is a nudge, and what its purpose is.
  2. The nudge manipulates with our freedom of choice (as opposed to our behavior), so that the individual’s choices are limited.

I will return to the model for good and bad nudges a little later. But first, we need to understand human behavior in a decision-making process, and why we do not always make the most rational and appropriate decisions. Nobel laureate, Daniel Kahneman, explains the human decision-making process in the ‘Dual Process Theory’. Here he introduces the concepts of “System 1” and “System 2”.

In short, our brain uses two different systems to make decisions. System 1 is intuitive and automatic and what we use 85-90% of the time, whereas System 2 is reflective and rational.

So, if I ask you what 34 x 13 is, or tell you to make a strategy, I will put your System 2 up and running. However, as mentioned, we do not have enough cognitive capacity to analyse all decisions and their outcomes, and then we use System 1. System 1 is what you use when you are asked to complete the phrase “the cherry…” or when you read the mood of others intuitively.

In other words, System 2 is what we use for mentally demanding tasks, while System 1 is where we shoot from the hip.


It is the principles of the Dual Process theory that are used to make nudges and to discuss when they are ethical.

We will always make a nudge by affecting the recipient’s System 1 because it is when we make decisions with System 1 that we use thumb rules and draw on past experience. This means that we are influenced by cognitive biases, which are a form of fallacy that makes us inclined to make a certain decision in a particular situation – rather than the right decision that fits what we want in this specific situation. If you find this a bit confusing, you can read more about it in this article

Nudging is about identifying the systematic mistakes we make, and on that basis, developing nudges that get people to make a more rational decision. Crucial to whether a nudge is ethical or not is how the receiver’s reflective System 2 is involved and whether the nudge is transparent or not.

How to do ethical nudging 

If we take the following parameters: nudges that affect either System 1 or System 2, and whether they are transparent or non-transparent, we end up with four categories of nudging:


Transparent nudge
Non-transparent nudge
Reflective thinking
(system 2)

Nudge 1:
Transparent facilitation of
consistent choice
Nudge 3:
Manipulation of choice
Automatic thinking
(system 1)
Nudge 2:
Transparent influence (technical
manipulation) of behavior
Nudge 4:
Non-transparent manipulation of behavior

Figur 3: Suitable labels of the intervention types (Guldborg & Maaløe, 2013: 23)

Nudge 1: Transparent facilitation of consistent choice

If you make this type of nudge, you try to engage System 2’s reflective thinking in a way that is transparent to the recipient. Therefore, with relative ease and without prior knowledge of cognitive bias and nudging, the recipient can understand what the intention behind the nudge is and what choices they have.

For example, by drawing a fly in the men’s pissoir, which captures the recipient’s attention and ensures that the focus and beam move in the same direction. The recipient can choose to play with and catch the fly or not (and pee on the floor in spite of it).

Nudge 2: Transparent influence (technical manipulation) of behavior

This type of nudges only affects our automatic thinking in System 1 and not our reflective System 2. It encourages our automatic system to change behavior. For example, when playing casual music while boarding a plane. Automatically you relax a little more and stress less, so that all passengers board in good order. If you think twice, and thereby use System 2, you know very well that you are meant to relax, and then you can reject the change in behavior and choose to be tense and stressed again.

Nudge 3: Manipulation of choice

These types of nudges change behavior without involving reflective system 2 thinking. Thereby, it is not transparent for the person being nudged. These are the kind of nudges you, as a choice architect, should avoid. An example is the framing of the risk associated with a medical treatment of cancer. Does the doctor state the consequences of chemotherapy such as the risk of dying from treatment at 10% or the chance of survival at 90%? The framing has a huge impact on the patient’s choice. But as a patient, it is difficult to see the impact that they are actually being exposed to in the design of choices

Nudge 4: Non-transparent manipulation of behavior

This type of nudge affects the receiver’s automatic System 1 without activating System 2. In practice, this means that the recipient is unaware that they are being affected and what they are actually being affected by. As a choice architect, you would prefer to avoid this type of nudging. Or you should at least be very aware that you are moving close to a grey area here.

An example is when the plate size at the buffet is reduced. People eat less without discovering it. They fill up the plate at the buffet and empty it at the table, just as they usually do. The filling and intake are such automatic behaviors that many of the subjects did not believe that they had actually eaten less.

This is exactly what makes nudge 4 a grey area: The recipient of the nudge just does not know that they are nudged because they cannot see the method by which they are being nudged. The above example may seem harmless, but if nudge 4, for example, was used to get people to donate their organs, then it would have been a whole other discussion.

The key message is: Use nudging wisely if you would like to apply nudging in your organisation. Relate to your nudges and what category they fall into. It is a science and it requires extensive knowledge in the field. And all choice architects must be aware of their responsibilities.


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