Everyone knows the sticky pull when fresh chewing gum sticks to the sole of your shoe. Every step is reminiscent of the sticky legacy, not to mention the feeling of disgust when removing it. Municipalities spend 900 million euros yearly to scrape chewing gum from the streets. The rubber does not rot, making animals that eat the chewing gum sick.

A project from England shows that spitting out chewing gum can be unlearned. A recycling company placed bright pink Gumdrop boxes at stations on the Great Western Railway – bins explicitly made for chewing gum (which also come in mini take-away versions). Result: The railway company saved £25,000 a year in cleaning costs. At the same time, the company that sets up the boxes processes the spat-out rubber into other plastic products.

In 2011, Copenhagen marked the way to the nearest rubbish bin with green footprints – and recorded 46 percent less rubbish on the streets.

Such simple, controlling measures influence our small daily decisions. The technical term for this is “nudging”. Especially when it comes to propagating new behavior and initiating a change toward the circular economy, it is worthwhile for everyone who designs/markets products and services to deal with the concept of nudging.

The concept of nudging utilizes the psychology of decision-making processes. The human brain needs energy for every decision. In order to work as resource-efficiently as possible, the brain uses mental shortcuts – such as acting like the majority or using the most straightforward way.

Nudge theory is a concept in behavioral economics, political theory, and behavioral sciences that proposes positive reinforcement and indirect suggestions as ways to influence the behavior and decision-making of groups or individuals. Nudging contrasts with other ways to achieve compliance, such as education, legislation, or enforcement.


Nudging is generally defined as leading to better behavior for people and society. Of course, the same means can also be used in other ways to control behavior – but it’s no longer nudging but manipulation.

The legal scholar Cass Sunstein (see the essay “Empirically informed regulation”) identifies four behavioral tendencies for nudging:

  • sloth, procrastination;
  • the presentation of the content of facts, i.e., framing and presentation;
  • social influences and norms;
  • misjudgments of probabilities

Based on these findings, the UK government’s Behavioral Insights Team developed the EAST framework to simplify access to nudging approaches. The acronym EAST stands for Easy, Attractive, Social, Timely.

Nudging mechanisms cluster into four categories:

  1. Easy – People value convenience.
  2. Attractive – People prefer aesthetic solutions.
  3. Social – People want to please.
  4. Timely – People need short-term validation.

Easy – We want it convenient.

In this category, barriers to performing desired behavior are removed. Since there were special lids for garbage cans on a US campus that make it clear which type of garbage belongs in which bin, the recycling rate there has increased.

Offering the desired variant as a standard (as “default”) is another method of reducing effort. A German energy supplier made the tariff with electricity from renewable sources the norm – and recorded a tenfold increase in customers for this offer. This pre-selection also works in trade between companies: solvents and cleaning chemicals, for example, can be offered for leasing rather than for sale – this ensures that they get reprocessed for reuse.

The simplification of information is also a very effective means: To reduce prescription errors for medicines, Imperial College in London changed the forms in a study: Instead of writing the mass unit of a dose by hand – which, in the case of bad handwriting, leads to mistakes between milligrams and micrograms – the weight unit is only marked in the form. This multiple-choice service reduced the error rate in tests.

Another example is the simple change of what is printed on discount food labels at the end of the best before date: from “30 percent less” on a red label to “30 percent less – eat quickly” on a green label. Even this tiny change increased customers’ willingness to purchase and reduced food waste.

Attractive – We love beautiful things.

People tend to be more aware of a new option when it is attractively designed. This attention has different aspects: Emotions, personalization, or the presentation of a personal benefit. Examples are traffic light markings on food packaging for the product’s health value or financial incentives for specific behavior; Deposit systems use this mechanism.

Social – We are social beings.

Social pressure is a powerful tool that can also be very subtle. For example, your consumption is next to the average consumption values ​​of other customers on bills from energy suppliers. Group pressure is a driver to persuade more people to stop eating meat, save water, separate waste, or use reusable packaging. For example, a combination of feedback reports and comparisons with other groups resulted in a 5 percent reduction in water use in the United States. Such information and comparisons can also be used playfully – for example, with real-time displays in apps. Or in combination with competitions within specific groups.

Timely – We live in the here and now.

Because we value the present much more than events and consequences in the future, it’s worth emphasizing the acute, immediate impact of sustainable action. For example, the immediately effective savings of a washing machine per month can be illustrated directly upon purchase – with an extrapolation of the savings over the service life. That’s how a higher price is proportionally rationalized and signals immediate savings.

The timing of information campaigns is also crucial. They typically catch on better when people plan to adapt their behavior: at the beginning of the year, for example, or when changing jobs or moving to a new city. New residents are five times more likely to switch to bike sharing when moving to a new city than when installing a new station in an existing neighborhood.

The examples show that it is worth considering carefully which behaviors can be controlled by which psychological patterns. Important here: Nudges are particularly suitable when the effects of a decision only become noticeable after a delay when complex decisions are involved, or they rarely have to be made (and therefore, no learning effect can occur).

Depending on the nudging approach, people are willing to engage in this form of guidance – as long as it corresponds to their fundamental values ​​and attitudes. Misuse reverses the effect.

Further information & sources:

Nudging – Report des Umweltbundesamtes („Nudge-Ansätze beim nachhaltigen Konsum: Ermittlung und Entwicklung von Maßnahmen zum „Anstoßen“ nachhaltiger Konsummuster“) –https://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/1410/publikationen/2017-08-22_texte_69-2017_nudgeansaetze_nach-konsum_0.pdf
The Little Book of Green Nudges – UN Environmental Program – https://www.unep.org/explore-topics/education-environment/what-we-do/little-book-green-nudges
Nudging and pro-environmental behavior – Nordic Council of Ministers – https://norden.diva-portal.org/smash/get/diva2:1065958/FULLTEXT01.pdf
Nudging. A tool for sustainable behavior? – Oksana Mont, Matthias Lehner, Eva Heiskanen, Swedish Environmental Protection Agency – https://www.researchgate.net/publication/271211332_Nudging_A_tool_for_sustainable_behaviour
EAST Framework – Behaviour Insights Team of British Government – https://www.bi.team/publications/east-four-simple-ways-to-apply-behavioural-insights/

Michael Leitl

Michael Leitl

Innovation & AI Strategy

After studying chemistry, being a long-time editor at “Harvard Business Manager”, a member of the innovation team at “Der Spiegel” and more: Michael brings a wealth of knowledge to the team and our partners.

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