The Problem with Nudging

The science of unconscious behaviour change is very misunderstood but can transform organisational change

Trevor E Hudson
5 min readSep 2, 2021

Am I alone in thinking the ‘latest and best thinking seems to carry a label that says ‘please misappropriate me for your own ends’? The biggest victims are often hot topics — gamification, nudging, brain-friendly training, millennials, Big Data, NLP, mindfulness … need I go on?

Nudging has been around for a while but it’s still new for many organisations due to the lack of understanding and a lack of expertise to help change it.

But what is nudging? It’s the collective science of predominantly unconscious incentives (or disincentives) to get behaviour change en masse. It’s easy to get it wrong and a superficial understanding of this will nearly always lead to failure. More importantly, it’s highly contextual so to make it work in a business setting typically needs the following:

  • Experimental mindset — willingness to try a couple of things and see which works. Not, I repeat not, guessing at what nudging is and then going all in with all your budget and resources. It is rife with failures but high ROI on the wins justify the path littered with failures.
  • Fit for purpose data — so that you can see if the ‘needle moves’ and that you are measuring what you want to change and the things you don’t want to change as well.
  • An acceptance of imperfection — you cannot get 100% success as it’s about changing context to influence decisions. If you have the power of 100% control over context you don’t need nudging just throw some of your lightning bolts or send a plague to change behaviour.

The most headline-worthy example is the reduction cleaning costs of men’s toilets by putting a fly in the right position in a urinal — because men can’t help but point at it. Yes ladies, that’s right.

This is so popular there is now a company (that is not an endorsement) that sells urinal flies. The key indicator of nudging at work was that there is no ‘education’ or attempt to engage the conscious effort of the men concerned. Let’s face it, it wouldn’t work anyway. I still leave the seat up. The fly was just something that was demonstrated to change behaviour by its presence.



Trevor E Hudson

Leadership, wisdom and the new world of work. wodenwisdom.com