Nudge Theory: How a ‘nudge’ makes us choose to comply

Football fans were completely stunned when Santos Neto, Brazil’s goalkeeper, walked onto the pitch just as a game was about to start, holding his mobile phone and busily texting away. It wasn’t an international game but still, it was a top flight Serie A league fixture. We don’t ever see that in football - but we often see it in other places, when the person is supposed to be totally focused on the job in hand but in fact is very distracted by their phone.

We are all guilty of it at times. But in Santos’ defence, it was a PR stunt agreed between his club, Atletico Paranaense and Uber, as part of a campaign to highlight the dangers of driving whilst using a mobile. This is called Nudge Theory in Behavioural Economics; the idea is that indirect suggestions or positive reinforcements can influence people’s choices, crucially without any forced compliance; in other words, manipulating someone to make a particular choice out of free will.

Santos told reporters at the time: "What I did on the pitch is the same as what thousands of people do every day in their cars. The only difference is that being involved in a traffic accident it much more dangerous than letting in a goal."

Another example of nudge theory that influenced behaviour was at Amsterdam’s Schiphol airport; an economist suggested etching a picture of a fly into the middle of each urinal as a way to encourage men to ‘aim for bullseye’ when going to the loo. As a result, there was much less spillage around the urinals, which reportedly led to an 80% reduction in cleaning bills.

Meanwhile in Stockholm, the stairs at a metro station were turned into a “piano” (standing on each step would produce a piano-like sound), resulting in a 66% increase in the number of people using them instead of the escalator – a creative and fun way to encourage more exercise. After the video of it went viral, other cities (including Milan, Istanbul and Melbourne) adopted this form of ‘nudging’.

The founder of Nudge Theory, leading American Economist Richard Thaler, won a Nobel Prize in 2017; one of the judges said: “Richard Thaler's findings have inspired many other researchers following in his footsteps and it has paved the way for a new field in Economics which we call Behavioural Economics." Behaviour Economics is where aspects of psychology meet aspects of economics, allowing us to get a clearer picture of why and how certain decisions are made.

‘Nudges’ are used widely by governments and policy-makers, but also by us, in our everyday lives. Offering smaller plates at a meal for instance, reduces food waste. A cafeteria at school or university, where the healthiest food options are displayed to catch the eye (product placement), is another form of nudging. But nudges are not necessarily in our best interest: think of the up-selling fast-food server who says, “Would you like extra-large fries with that?”

Suggested links

'Nudge' economist Richard Thaler wins Nobel Prize - BBC News

The Rise of Behavioral Economics and Its Influence on Organizations (

Richard Thaler: Nudge Theory & Behavioral Economics | UBS Nobel Perspectives

Meet The Goalkeeper Who Has Been Suspended For Using His Phone During Match - SPORTbible

Behavioural Economics | Topics | Economics | tutor2u

What is Nudge Theory? | Research groups | Imperial College London