Is your phone a nudnik?

The fine art and gentle science of digital nudging

Israeli professor Shlomo Ben-Artzi believes our devices can help make us better people, even if we’re ‘cognitively lazy’

Illustrative photo of a steering wheel (Pixabay)
Illustrative photo of a steering wheel (Pixabay)

Nobody likes a nudnik – but “nudges,” who are less obtrusive and strident, are more socially acceptable, according to UCLA professor Shlomo Ben-Artzi. Especially if the nudge is a digital one, in the form of an app or electronic reminder that gently guides you to the desired goal, whether your own or government mandated.

And for better or worse, the expertise of Israel in tech – and in the social sciences – makes it a focal point of research in the area of digital nudging, believes Ben-Artzi.

One of the world’s biggest experts on nudging, Ben-Artzi has for years been researching the buttons that make us act, or not act, depending on the situation. “In many cases, people know they should be doing positive things, like saving money and losing weight, or refraining from negative acts, like texting while they drive,” Ben-Artzi told The Times of Israel. “People realize they are being nudged, but in those situations they are willing to tolerate it, because they realize they need help in accomplishing their goal.”

A marriage of behavioral science and high-tech

Digital nudging, as the tactic is officially called, involves using the power of cellphones and cellular communications to get people to act, or not act, in certain ways. A marriage of behavioral science and high-tech, digital nudging uses apps, communications tech, location services, and even cameras to make making the right choice easy, convenient, fun, and social. Nudges can consist of innocent looking suggestions, like a simple line in an e-mail that cites a statistic like “90% of your neighbors paid their taxes on time” – or a more elaborate photo or video presentation, highlighting “the most beautiful lawn in town.” Both tactics have been used successfully to get people to pay their taxes or clean up the lawn.

If all this seems obvious, it’s only because we have become so inured to marketing that we fail to notice when someone is trying to press our buttons. But the world of digital nudging isn’t at all simple: there’s a fine line between nudging and nannyism, where target audiences feel lectured to and hectored at, said Ben-Artzi.

“There are interventions where you say ‘what the hell, we might as well give it a try.’ Those are the ones we are aiming at,” said Ben-Artzi, as opposed to the interventions that come down as too-heavy handed, such as when an authority makes it clear that they are making a choice on your behalf, and there’s little you can do about it.

Screenshot of DriveOff, a digital nudging app that shuts off texting privileges for drivers when in motion (Courtesy)
Screenshot of DriveOff, a digital nudging app that shuts off texting privileges for drivers when in motion (Courtesy)

Married to digital tech, nudging can take on new and creative forms that subtly induce behavioral changes. DriveOFF, for example, is an app developed by car insurance company Esure that shuts off “distracting apps” (especially social ones like Facebook and Whatsapp) when it detects drivers moving at more than ten miles per hour. Meant for teenage drivers (and usually installed by their parents), the app runs in the background at all times – so while kids are not restricted from texting, they have to stop the car in order to do it. It’s their choice to stop driving or not, so the choice is not too onerous as to induce a user to try to figure out ways around the texting prohibition, said Ben-Artzi.

Shlomo Ben-Artzi (Courtesy)
Shlomo Ben-Artzi (Courtesy)

Something as simple as rearranging the elements of a web page can bring about significant changes, said Ben-Artzi. For example, with the assistance of economists from the University of Essex in the UK, the country’s tax authority changed the design of tax collection forms, so that the signature on the form, which is a condition for the validity of payment, was placed at the top instead of the bottom. The result was an increase of 10-15% in tax proceeds, as more people complied with the procedure as they saw themselves at the center of the process.

“There is a great study where students who wanted to apply on-line for scholarships were able to log onto the scholarship site and find that the application form was already filled out with their name, income, address, and other details which were picked up from a database of their on-line tax preparer,” said Ben-Artzi. “The rate at which students filled out the forms – which for many was the first step to even going to college – went up by a third.”

At the heart of digital nudging is fiinding ways around “cognitive laziness,” where people know they should do something for their own benefit but either can’t be bothered, or resist because of competing interests they don’t want to fight, said Ben-Artzi.

The greatest testament to nudging in general is actually a project Ben-Artzi led along with fellow academic Richard Thaler in the late 1990s, called Save More Tomorrow; within four years, over 4 million people in the US increased their contributions to retirement plans by more than 10%, after having committed to signing up to save more for retirement. “Many people want to save, but are distracted by sales, expenses, etc.,” said Ben-Artzi.

“With guidance – getting them to sign up for a program, showing them success stories of people like them, and other tactics – we can get people to do things they want to do, but somehow can’t bring themselves to do. Now, in the digital age, there are a lot more methods to reach people with the appropriate message,” said Ben-Artzi. “There are a lot of situations where digital nudging could be very useful – for example, sending out messages to voters on Election Day to get them to come to the polls, or using a digital app to create a community encouraging use of public transportation,” he added.

While Ben-Artzi looks to nudging to make positive changes, others are not as public-spirited. Marketers, of course, use the tactics to sell people things – sending SMS reminders that they haven’t visited a store in several weeks, or inviting them to try a new product based on their purchase history, or enrolling them in a buyer’s club so they marketers send them “gifts” and incentives like coupons that get them into the store (e-mail, too identified with spam nowadays, is no longer seen as an effective way to reach customers, according to many marketing experts).

Screenshot for Canary, an app that keeps an eye on all activities done by teens in a car, warns users against doing them, and uploads information to parents about them (Courtesy)
Screenshot for Canary, an app that keeps an eye on all activities done by teens in a car, warns users against doing them, and uploads information to parents about them (Courtesy)

And there’s always the possibility that a group with socially un-worthy goals will use these tactics as well. “We know from the famous experiments by Stanley Milgram and others that people tend to follow the crowd, even if they are asked to do something immoral,” said Ben-Artzi, citing the famous 1961 experiments in which ordinary people, took on the supposed role of torturers of individuals who were unable to make the academic grade. “Unfortunately there does not seem to be any internal moral brake that prevents this kind of behavior, either.

“When we do these kinds of experiments in academia, we have a committee that reviews applications to make sure they are stable enough to understand that their experiment behavior should not seep out into real life,” said Ben-Artzi. “We might need those kinds of committees to ensure that digital nudging is used for the public good as well. While the danger of misuse exists in all forms of nudging, it’s especially relevant in the digital sphere, because it’s so much easier to reach people. Israel, because of its technological capabilities, especially in communications tech, as well as its expertise in social apps, is a natural center for the development of this field.”

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